This chapter follows the messages to the seven churches and is introduced by the important phrase “AFTER THIS.” Most of the struggles of scholars attempting to interpret the book of Revelation stem from a failure to understand that the book of Revelation is a book of prophecy and that prophecy has a chronological order. This becomes the key to unlocking the book of Revelation.
In Revelation 1:9–20, John was instructed, “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later” (v. 19). Simplistic as this statement is, it provides an inspired outline of the book of Revelation.
- “What was” — it refers to the experience of John seeing Jesus in His glory in chapter 1;
- “What is now” – it refers to the messages to the seven churches, that represent the churches in this present age;
- “What will take place later” – it refers to that which is future.
Confusion in the interpretation of Revelation stems almost entirely from the failure to observe this divine outline. The opening of chapter 4 with the phrase “AFTER THIS,” referring to the churches, should make clear that as from chapter 4 onwards, the book of Revelation is dealing with future events.
Apart from these indications in the text of the chronological outline, a number of important arguments support this concept, which is so essential in understanding this book. One of the most convincing arguments that the future is discussed as from chapter 4, is the fact that the events described, either in symbolic or other ways, find no literal fulfillment in the history of the church. The historical school of interpretation, which regards the book of Revelation as being fulfilled in history, has been unable to provide any consensus on its interpretation and offers only confusion.
If the events described have any literal fulfillment, they, accordingly, must be fulfilled at some future time. This is in harmony with the concept that the book is prophetic rather than history or simply descriptive of the moral conflict that exists in the world. This also explains why, apart from the futuristic prophetic view, there has been no coherent, or majority interpretation. Each of the major views—allegorical, preterist, and historical—when applied to this book yield entirely different answers according to the person doing the study. Only the futurist view provides any reasonable coherence between what the book states and what the fulfillment of its prophecy would indicate. Though there are some instances where interpretation is not entirely clear, other events stand out as being specific future events and provide enough guidance so that the book of Revelation becomes a majestic unfolding of the future with the revelation of Christ at the second coming as its main theme.
One of the important conclusions in prophecy is the concept that the church composed of the saved of the present age will be in heaven while the great events of the tribulation and of the end time take place. This is exactly what is described in Revelation 4–5. The church in heaven is in contrast to the great time of trouble that will take place on the earth prior to the second coming of Christ. Accordingly, though the specific prophecies regarding the church are not the main topic of these two chapters, the vision of heaven plays off when the saints and angels and the sovereign God on His throne form an intelligent background for other events that will take place both in heaven and on earth.
John stated at the opening of Revelation 4: “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’” (v. 1).
Actually, John was on the Isle of Patmos where he had been exiled, and the revelation was given to him at this location. In this instance, however, he stated, “At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it” (v. 2). It may be debated whether John was physically caught up to heaven or whether simply in his vision he is caught up in heaven. In either case, he saw the scene as he would if he had been present. The voice that provided the invitation, according to John, was the same voice he had heard in 1:10 where he was instructed to write the message to the seven churches (v. 11).
Because John’s experience is similar to what will happen at the rapture when the church is caught up to heaven, some have equated the two events, but actually, John was not raptured, and his natural body was probably still on the Isle of Patmos. Accordingly, it is better to regard this as a special situation. It may be going on beyond the intent of this passage to hint that the rapture is going to take place in the period following the church age, but from the context in which the event is placed in the book of Revelation, it is reasonable to conclude that the rapture has taken place and that what John is seeing is a setting for events in heaven that will take place in heaven and on earth in the period after the rapture.
The word church, prominent in chapters 2–3, does not re-occur until 22:16, though the bride mentioned in 19:7, no doubt, is a reference to the church. The total absence of any reference to the church or any synonym of the church in chapters 4–18 is highly significant because ordinarily the church would be in the center of the activities. Rather, Jews and Gentiles are spoken of separately as individuals who are saved or unsaved.
John’s first experience upon arrival in heaven was to behold “a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it” (4:2). He described the personage on the throne in these words: “And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne” (v. 3). The personage on the throne is said to resemble in His glory the jasper and the carnelian stones. The jasper, described in 21:11, is a clear stone in contrast to the jasper stone known on earth as an opaque stone. Accordingly, some have concluded that it may be a diamond in appearance. The carnelian stone is red in color like a ruby.
Though the colors of the stone, enhanced by the rainbow, resembling an emerald, which is green in color, provide the glorious appearance, the significance of these stones may be derived from their use in Israel. On the breastplate of the priest there were twelve stones, each representing a tribe of Israel. The high priest represented all twelve tribes before God when he performed his priestly functions. The jasper and the carnelian stones were the first and last of the twelve stones (cf. Ex. 28:17–21). Further, the jasper represented the tribe of Reuben, the first tribe, and the carnelian stone represented Benjamin, the youngest tribe. Mention of these two stones, accordingly, was intended to include all the twelve tribes of Israel.
Further, the names of Reuben and Benjamin have significance because Reuben has the meaning of “behold the son,” and Benjamin means “son of my right hand.” Christ, of course, fulfills both of these functions, and He is the first-begotten Son. Like Benjamin, He is “the Son of My right hand,” also speaking of Christ in His relationship to God the Father. Taking all these things into consideration, it would seem best to interpret this passage as a description of God the Father sitting on a throne. This is also supported by the fact that Christ is pictured in a different way in this passage as separate from the One on the throne, though actually He occupies the throne with the Father also. The main purpose of this vision, however, was to show the glory of God.
As John surveyed the scene in heaven, he also saw twenty-four other thrones and recorded, “Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads” (Rev. 4:4). They are obviously a representative group. In Israel, for instance, the many priests were divided into twenty-four groups, and one priest would represent each of the twenty-four.
The question has been raised, however, as to whether these twenty-four elders represent all the saints, both Old and New Testament, or only the church of the present age, or perhaps they are angelic figures. These and other interpretations have been advanced by scholars.
They were described as having white robes, speaking of righteousness in the presence of God, and wearing crowns of gold, which were not the crown of a ruler (Gr., diadem), but rather the crown of a victor (Gr., stephanos), crowns awarded victors in the race. The implication is that these have already been rewarded as symbolized in the throne.
In reconstructing the events of the end time, if the church is raptured before the end-time events and is judged at the judgment seat of Christ, it would provide a plausible explanation that these twenty-four elders are representatives of the church.
John was then made aware of ominous sounds indicating divine judgment: “From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder” (4:5). The setting in heaven foreshadows the judgments to come on the earth. A similar experience of thunders, lightnings, and trumpets was experienced in the giving of the Mosaic law in Exodus 19:16. The scene in heaven that he saw was, of course, the forerunner of the terrible judgments to be inflicted on the earth in the period that followed.
John also recorded, “Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God” (Rev. 4:5). Mention of these seven spirits is found earlier in 1:4 and 3:1. Though no explanation is given, it is probably best to consider this a representation of the Holy Spirit in a sevenfold way rather than consider them relating to seven angels, which would be an alternate explanation.
The Holy Spirit, not ordinarily visible, on certain occasions has assumed physical form as here, and in the case of the Holy Spirit descending as a dove on Christ at His baptism (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was seen as “tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (Acts 2:3). In this scene from heaven not only God the Father was revealed on the throne and Christ in the next chapter as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Rev. 5:5) but the Holy Spirit as well, all three persons of the Trinity being present. The term of “seven” in relation to the lamps and the spirits of God is in keeping with the concept that the number seven indicates perfection, and is in keeping also with the seven qualities or attributes of the Holy Spirit revealed in Isaiah 11:2–3.
John recorded, “Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal” (Rev. 4:6). Though the expression is not interpreted here, there seems to be a relationship to the laver or a bronze basin filled with water in the tabernacle in the Old Testament and the “Sea” in the temple (1 Kings 7:23–25), both of them being washstands designed to provide the priest with water for cleansing. Together they represent the sanctifying power of the Word of God symbolized by the water.
John also recorded, “In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings” (Rev. 4:6–8). There is considerable diversity among interpreters concerning what the four living creatures represent. Probably the best interpretation is that they are physical embodiments of the attributes of God, as the seven lamps represent the Holy Spirit (v. 5). They are compared to a lion, ox, man, and flying eagle. Some relate this to the four Gospels: Matthew represented the lion or the king; Mark, the ox or servant; Luke, man in his humanity; and John, the flying eagle representing the deity of Christ. Still others compare them to angels and find support in the fact they had six wings. Their ministry was to worship God, and John recorded, “Day and night they never stopped saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come’” (v. 8).
Their worship of God also is a call to the twenty-four elders to worship. “Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever” (vv. 9–10). The twenty-four elders also give their praise to the Lord, “They lay their crowns before the throne and say: ‘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’” (vv. 10–11).
Though the entire content of chapter 4 is what John saw in heaven, it also is a revelation of the glory and honor given to God in the future and therefore has a prophetic base. Most important, it emphasizes what events will occur in heaven while end-time events take place on earth.
In Revelation 5:1–10, attention is focused on the fact that Jesus Christ is in heaven and worthy to take the seven-sealed scroll. A separate article will still be posted on this chapter.
(Source: John F. Walvoord – Every Prophecy of the Bible: Clear Explanations for Uncertain Times (p. 525-530)).