Commentary on Revelation 4

Notes (NET Translation)

1 After these things I looked, and there was a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet said: “Come up here so that I can show you what must happen after these things.”

The opening words of this verse introduce a new vision. The previous vision consists of 1:10-3:22. From 1:10ff. we know that the voice speaking like a trumpet is Christ’s. God is in control of history and can therefore speak about what must happen, pointing to the visions later in the book. The closing phrase, “after these things”, alludes to Daniel 2:28-29, 45 and its talk of the last days. Recall from our discussion on 1:1 that Christ’s death and resurrection inaugurated the last days. Hence, G. K. Beale notes that not all of the following visions need to refer to future events (from John’s perspective).

Johnson has argued that “what must take place after these things” refers to what follows that which is at present as the Apocalypse is written. Therefore, the visions in chs. 4–22 pertain to a period after the time of the historical churches addressed in the letters. This view is based on Keil’s analysis of the phrase in Dan. 2:28, 29, 45, where the same conclusion is drawn. However, Keil also affirms that the events “that must occur afterward” include the immediate future of the then reigning King Nebuchadnezzar as well and therefore of the writer himself. Consequently, Johnson’s conclusion that this phrase refers to a period after the time of the historical churches of the letters is not supported by Keil’s study. But even in contrast to Keil, strictly speaking the “latter days” of Dan. 2:28 (= “after this,” Dan. 2:29, 45), to which the entire dream and interpretation are said to refer, includes not only the immediate and distant future but also the immediate past and present. This is evident from the fact that the head of gold in Dan. 2:37–38 is identified as Nebuchadnezzar in his present reign (“You are the head of gold”). But the description of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign in vv 37–38 is so broad that not only the immediate future but also the recent past is included. This could further support our conclusion that the Dan. 2:28ff. allusion in Rev. 1:1; 19; 4:1 refers to the “latter days” having been inaugurated in the past and continuing in the present and into the future. Nevertheless, the focus of Daniel’s “latter days” is surely on the establishment of God’s kingdom in the future, which we have argued John saw as inaugurated. (Beale 318)

2 Immediately I was in the Spirit, and a throne was standing in heaven with someone seated on it!

To be “in the Spirit” means John is being led by the Holy Spirit to have a visionary experience that reveals God’s mysteries. The one seated on the throne is God (4:8, 11).

Readers of Revelation in every age, and not simply in first-century Roman Asia, should be challenged by this vision to consider whether their attachment is to this ultimate throne, or to one of the many rival thrones (which amounts to Revelation’s great sin of idolatry). Not for nothing has Revelation acquired a reputation throughout Christian history for being politically subversive. (Boxall 83)

3 And the one seated on it was like jasper and carnelian in appearance, and a rainbow looking like it was made of emerald encircled the throne.

God is likened to three precious, translucent stones. The rainbow is not a normal arc but rather encircles the throne like a halo (cf. Ezek 1:28). All the imagery in this verse symbolize the glory surrounding God. The glory of God and the glory of the New Jerusalem are similar (jasper, 21:11, 18, 19; carnelian, 21:20; emerald/crystal, 22:1). “John is careful not to try to depict the one seated upon the throne of heaven in any sort of human form” (Mounce loc. 2511-2512).

4 In a circle around the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on those thrones were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white clothing and had golden crowns on their heads.

In Revelation the primary role of the elders (presbyteroi) is that of praise and worship (4:11; 5:9-10, 14; 11:16-18; 14:3; 19:4). Occasionally they act as intermediaries or interpreters (5:5; 7:13-17).

A close examination of these texts shows a distinct differentiation between the elders and the saints. In 5:8 they hold golden bowls that contain the prayers of the saints; in 7:13–14 one of them explains who the victorious saints are; in 11:18 they thank God for rewarding the saints; in 14:3 the 144,000 sing “a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders”; and in 19:4 they join the heavenly chorus. The elders are seated on thrones (4:4; 11:16), while the saints stand before the throne (7:9). From this evidence it is more likely that these are heavenly beings who reign with God and are part of the retinue surrounding his throne. Moreover, since “all the angels” also stand before the throne (7:11), these must be celestial beings with a ruling function. (Osborne 229)

If I am correct that the four living creatures represent animate creation (see 4:7), then the twenty-four elders may be angelic representatives of all the saints through an allusion to the twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles (cf. 21:12-14). Their white clothing symbolizes purity and holiness and their golden crowns symbolize their royal status. Since the elders have a priestly function it is possible that the number twenty-four also represents the twenty-four priestly orders (1 Chron 24:1-18).

5 From the throne came out flashes of lightning and roaring and crashes of thunder. Seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God, were burning in front of the throne 6 and in front of the throne was something like a sea of glass, like crystal. In the middle of the throne and around the throne were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back.

The “flashes of lightning and roaring and crashes of thunder” are “from the throne” in the sense that they are the works of God (cf. 8:5; 11:19; 16:18). The language recalls the theophany at Sinai (Ex 19:16-18) and the chariot vision of Ezekiel (Ezek 1:13). The “something like a sea of glass” alludes to Genesis 1:7 (the firmament) and Ezekiel 1:22 (the division between God and the cherubim). The point of this phrase may be to indicate that God is transcendent and holy, he is separate from his creation.

The four living creatures are said to be “in the middle of the throne and around the throne.” “Since the four living creatures are drawn from Ezek. 1, which seems to indicate that one being was in front of the throne and the others to the side and perhaps behind (from 1:5, 12–13), it is better to follow those (Swete, Beckwith, Beasley-Murray, Thomas) who see these as right next to the throne, surrounding it with their presence” (Osborne 232–233). Since they are closest to the throne these creatures may be the highest celestial beings. That the creatures are “full of eyes” indicates that nothing escapes their notice.

Are the four living beings intended to be understood as literal heavenly creatures of a high angelic order? The likelihood is that they are only a symbolic depiction, since they differ from both the models in Isaiah 6 and in Ezekiel 1, which also differ: (1) The number of wings vary — four on each creature in Ezekiel, six on each, in three pairs, in Isaiah, and six undifferentiated wings on each in Revelation. (2) Their position varies — standing above the throne in Isaiah, forming part of the base of the throne together with the “wheels” in Ezekiel. (3) The descriptions of the faces, eyes, and wings and the vocal role of these beings is somewhat different in Ezekiel and Revelation. For example, in Ezek. 1:6, 10 each of the creatures has four faces (lion, ox, man, and eagle), whereas in John’s vision each has only one of these faces. Even in the OT there are different descriptions of the cherubim (e.g., cf. 1 Kgs. 6:24ff. and 2 Chron. 3:13 with Ezek. 1:6). And in Jewish tradition the cherubim are portrayed together with the seraphim in singing praise to God, as they do in Revelation (e.g., 1 En. 61:9–11; 2 En. 21:1), whereas they have no such role in Ezekiel 1. (4) If the “book,” “seals,” “lion,” “lamb,” “horns,” and “seven eyes” are all symbolic, so likely also are the other features of the vision in Revelation 4 and 5. The same assessment is probably true with respect to the twenty-four elders. (Beale 330–331)

7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second creature like an ox, the third creature had a face like a man’s, and the fourth creature looked like an eagle flying.

The likenesses of the creatures are similar to those in Ezekiel 1:5-6, 10-11 (Ezekiel’s creatures have four faces each). The meaning of these creatures is obscure. In my opinion, the best explanation is that they represent the whole of animate creation. This is how the creatures from Ezekiel were interpreted by ancient Jews (Midr. Rab. Cant. 3.10.4; cf. also Midr. Rab. Exod. 23.13; Midr. Pss. 103.16; Tanna debe Eliyyahu 161; b. Hagigah 13b).

8 Each one of the four living creatures had six wings and was full of eyes all around and inside. They never rest day or night, saying: “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful, Who was and who is, and who is still to come!”

The six wings on the creatures are drawn from Isaiah 6:2. In Revelation these creatures lead worship (4:6–9; 5:8–9, 11; 19:4), guard the throne (5:6; 7:11; 14:3), and carry out divine judgment (6:1, 3, 5–7; 15:7). The opening of their worship (“Holy Holy Holy”) parallels that found in Isaiah 6:3. God is sovereign, all-powerful, and eternal.

9 And whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the one who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders throw themselves to the ground before the one who sits on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever, and they offer their crowns before his throne, saying: 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, since you created all things, and because of your will they existed and were created!”

The word “whenever” in verse 9 suggests that the songs of the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders are sung antiphonally. “In casting down their crowns before the throne the elders acknowledge that their authority is a delegated authority. The honor given them is freely returned to the One who alone is worthy of universal honor” (Mounce loc. 2609-2611). The song of the  twenty-four elders is political in nature for it uses language that was used in Roman court ceremonies. The message is that only God, not Caesar, is worthy of worship.

Some have noted the apparently illogical order of the last phrase of the canticle, for creation surely precedes existence. This may explain the variant reading ‘by your will things were not, and were created’ (i.e. out of a state of non-being). But we should not expect such straightforward logic in hymnic sections; indeed, this practice of inverting the logical order of events is regularly used by John (e.g. 3:17; 5:2, 5; 6:4: see Aune 1997: 312). The main point is clear: one alone is the object of worship; to be privileged to witness the heavenly liturgy is to have the veil removed from one’s eyes, such that rival claimants to the throne on earth can never be viewed in the same light again. (Boxall 90)

Bibliography

Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

Boxall, Ian. Revelation of Saint John, The. Black’s New Testament Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009.

Brown, Raymond Edward, ed. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Pearson P T R, 1991.

Fee, Gordon D. Revelation. Kindle ed. New Covenant Commentary Series. Cascade Books, 2010.

Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Revised. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Osborne, G. R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

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One Reply to “Commentary on Revelation 4”

  1. The four living creatures can be best translated as the four “living ones” since only the Greek word for living is used; there is no word here for creatures. Already in 1:18, Jesus identifies himself as “the living one” (who died and is alive forever). And in 4:9 the one (God) on the throne is praised as “living forever and ever.”

    Similarly, the depictions in 4:7 of the living ones as “like” a lion, ox, man, and eagle can also link with similar depictions of Jesus. In 5:5 Jesus is also portrayed as the “lion,” and in 5:6 as a slaughtered lamb (the Greek word for ox in 4:7 can be used for a sacrificial ox or bull); and in 1:13 Jesus looks “like” a son of man. So again, Jesus and the four living ones are closely linked.

    In 4:6 the living ones are full of eyes, like the lamb in 5:6–who stands in the midst of the throne and the four living ones and has seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. So both Jesus and the living ones full of eyes, all-seeing.

    These analogous images point to viewing the four living ones as not “creatures,” though they look “like” some creatures; instead, they are most like Jesus (and God), living (eternal) and all-seeing. So I think they are most similar to the seven spirits, the “eyes” of Jesus, which are the fullness of the (divine) Spirit. Just as what Jesus and the Spirit say to the seven churches highlights Rev. 2-3, so now Jesus and the living ones (spirits, Spirit) in heaven, along with God on the throne, highlight Rev. 4-5. They are all on or in the midst of the throne; they are the divine rulers of heaven.

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