June 5: Revelation 4:1-11

We’ve embarked on our second Revelation mini-series, Worship the King. For this week and the next three we’ll look at specific passages in Revelation that develop and explain the theme of worship in the book. When you think about Revelation you maybe think about end of the world, Armageddon-esque scenes, but there’s a surprising number of worship scenes in the book, making worship a big theme, and crucial method for understanding, Revelation.
The first two weeks we’ll hang out in chapters 4 and 5, the first throne room scene of the book, looking at 4:1-11 and 5:1-10. Then in weeks three we’ll look at 19:6-10, the marriage supper of the Lamb, and in week four 19:11-16, Jesus the rider on the white horse. Our hope for the series is to explore the object of the deepest affections of citizens, King Jesus, how those affections lead us into worship, and answer the question, why and how should we worship King Jesus?
The beginning of chapter 4 transitions from John’s initial vision, when he received the letters to the seven churches, into a new vision in which he was taken up into heaven to witness heavenly realities. There John is allowed to see the throne room of God, and what will take place here and next week in chapter 5 is crucial for understanding much of the whole book. The short version of it is this: the sovereign God reigns from his throne in heaven and has given authority to Jesus to execute his desires for the future (more on that next week). In all our attempts to understand The End of Time, plus the time between now and then, we must always use that truth as our North Star.

Transported into heaven, John sees a magnificent throne with an even more magnificent King seated there. The passage is thick with imagery, and here we need to observe two things. First, we need to keep in mind that prophetic and apocalyptic literature has a dreamlike quality to it. For example, if we take things only literally then it’s hard to imagine how John knew the living creatures had eyes inside their bodies (4:8) unless they showed him somehow, which is creepy. But perhaps you’ve experienced this—sometimes in dreams you have access to knowledge you haven’t witnessed (like in verse 8 where John seems to know that these creatures never cease to give praise, even though he just got to heaven).

That’s not to say that all the things John sees here are metaphorical or purely spiritual. On the whole, we should read these visions as if this is exactly what John saw—to not do so risks over-spiritualizing the text, makes us wonder why John would write about stuff he maybe didn’t actually see, and leaves us trying to guess the symbolism of every minute detail. However, we should also assume that John had access to at least some spiritual/metaphorical content, like the creatures having eyeballs inside them, and that these details have something plain and simple to tell us (ex. the creatures, being supernaturally perceptive, witness things in heaven and earth continually and react by calling God holy).

The second thing we need to observe is this, that John describes things in the heavenly with some caveats, like a rainbow that had “the appearance of emerald.”(4:3) This is reminiscent of Isaiah and Ezekiel’s visions (ex. Eze. 1:28), and the reticence could indicate that John was seeing things he had a hard time explaining. However, this also likely reflects a classic, Jewish hesitancy towards describing God. For example, in Isaiah 6, Isaiah sees the throne of God in the Temple, and all he describes is the train of God’s robe. God is so holy, so transcendent, that Isaiah couldn’t even look at him or describe him.

Here John is doing the same thing—note that he only describes the appearance of the One on the throne (4:3, like brilliant, precious jewels) and, in 5:1, his hand. This should add volumes to our understanding of the worshipful nature of the text. Here we have God’s throne, surrounded by supernatural living creatures (cf. Isaiah 6:3) and twenty-four elders (likely the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles) who all never cease to worship God. Which, it’s worth saying that more important than the identity and appearance of the creatures and elders is their activity: ceaseless praise and worship of God. They point to his holiness (4:8) and his works in creation (4:11) as the full criteria to prove his worth in receiving unending praise from his creation.

As a sidebar, next week we’ll see the real ramifications of all this when Jesus shows up in 5:6, because the throne-room attendees will praise him the same way, a bold declaration for the deity of Jesus and the significance of his work in saving his people.

And as much as Revelation looks forward in time, this scene also helps us make sense of our lives today. There is a throne in heaven, right now, and our citizenship resides there. The worship of God is the heartbeat of the cosmos, even when we humans on earth don’t see it, participate in it, or value it. However, this passage, and our Worship mini-series, give us a prime opportunity to ask ourselves (as we will in the discussion), what is it that makes God worthy of my worship? We’ll go on to ask how each of us hopes to grow in our living, breathing devotion to God as the object of our worship, which should give us fruitful material to dig into personally over the next three weeks.
Questions for Discussion
Revelation Resources →

• Could someone read Revelation 4:1-11 for us?

• What stood out to you from the passage?

• What does this passage tell us about God?

• What do the creatures and elders do to worship God in this passage, and how does that inform our understanding of what worship is?

• What reasons does the passage give for why God is worthy of worship?

• For you, personally, what makes God worthy of your worship?

• What’s something about worship that you’d like to learn more about or grow in? (keep in mind: worship is more than music)