Revelation 4

We are now come to the strictly prophetic part of the book of Revelation. The seven churches formed together what the Holy Ghost calls “the things which are.” And the Son of man was seen judging the house of God on earth, represented by the Asiatic churches. They existed in the time of St. John; and in a mystic sort at least, they have an existence continuous, and to a certain extent successive, as long as there is any testimony rendered by the professing body on the earth. If the literal application is past, the protracted representative bearing still goes on. In Revelation 1:19 we were told that, besides “the things which thou hast seen” and “the things which are,” there is a third division — “the things which shall be hereafter.” The word “hereafter” is vague, whereas the sense intended appears to be precise: it should be read “the things which shall be after these,” meaning what is to follow after the church has come to an end on the earth. Its present history closes here, though it will have a better existence in heaven, and it will reign over the earth too in the day of millennial glory. We then arrive at this wholly prophetical portion. Revelation 4 and 5 are a kind of preface to “the things which shall be after these.” Their great object is to show us, not events occurring on the earth, but the attitude or aspect in which God appears, and the place of those who are nearest to Him, during the occurrence of these future events, or the crisis of the present age. I must here dwell a little on the first of these chapters.

“After these things I looked, and, behold, a door opened in heaven, and the first voice which I heard [was] as it were of a trumpet, talking with me;” etc. (ver. 1). The “first voice” here does not mean the first of the voices that were about to speak, as some have strangely thought, but the voice that John had already heard in Revelation 1 — the voice of Him who had been in the midst of the seven golden lamp-stands. It still addresses him like a trumpet, no longer from earth but from heaven. There was a door there, and the voice spake from thence, so that this portion of the book supposes the earth done with for the moment, and the scene lies above. It is not merely that saints render testimony on the earth, but the voice speaks from heaven, showing the things that should follow the church-condition on earth now concluded. “Come up hither, and I will show thee the things which must happen after these things” John is said to be immediately in the Spirit (ver. 2); that is, by the Holy Ghost’s power he was rapt and characterised, so as to enter into the new scenes he was now to behold.

“Behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat,” etc. God is not named as such in this account, save as “He that sat upon the throne.” John is about to show us what the aspect seemed of the One who sits upon the throne, while there is that in God which “no man hath seen or can see. This is a representation, in a symbolical way, of the glory of God. He may assume any appearance that pleases Him; but as far as He permitted it to be displayed here, it was what could be compared to these precious stones. In Revelation 21 the bride, the New Jerusalem, comes down “out of heaven from God, having the glory of God; her light [was] like a stone most precious, as a jasper stone,” etc. It is quite evident that this cannot be the essential glory of God. It rather means, I think, that it was not a human but a divine glory. There is in God that which He can confer upon the creature, and there is that which is incommunicable. Here divine glory is meant in contrast with creature glory — not that which would derogate from His majesty, but be a reflection of it. Her light was like a jasper stone; the wall also was of jasper (verse 18), and the first foundation (verse 19).30 The general appearance of the city was as it were of jasper. This a little answers, I think, to the view we have in Revelation 4 of what John enjoyed of the sight of Him that sat upon the throne. In Rom. 5:2 it is said, not only that we have access to the grace of God in which we stand, but that we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. That glory of Him who sat on the throne, as far as it could be viewed by the creature, was presented under the figure of jasper and sardius (verse 3); and when the church comes forth in the glory of God, her light will be jasper-like. That is, the thought of God’s glory, not man’s, is the thing conveyed to the mind. Even in the “eternal day,” there will be no such change as God abandoning or lowering the dignity of His own proper Godhead; for there must always be an infinite difference between God and the most exalted of His creatures. Still, there is a resemblance between the glory of God as seen by man, and the church’s glory by and by. And this answers exactly to the words of our Lord in the Gospel of John (John 17:22, 23): “The glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.”

Far more untenable is the view that the jasper sets forth the incarnation. It appears to me to fall in with not a single occurrence of the figure; it sets Revelation 4 hopelessly at variance with Revelation 5, and it would involve, I fear, serious aberration from sound doctrine, if carried out in Revelation 21.

But, besides the appearance of divine glory, there was a rainbow round about the throne. This evidently carries our thoughts back to the covenant that God made, not with His people Israel, but with the earth at large. The covenant with His people is noticed for the first time in Revelation 11, where we have heaven opened and the ark of His testament seen in His temple. It is not the new covenant itself; for when this is brought about, there will be no earthquakes, and lightnings, and thunders, etc., but the day of peace and blessing for Israel. But at the time to which that vision refers, God will show that He has respect to His covenant. Here the rainbow is God’s remembrance of His covenant with the earth. The ark spoken of in Revelation 11 is God’s remembrance of His covenant with His people. God is going to pour forth judgments on the earth and on those who had the responsibility of being His people. But He takes pains to show that, before a single judgment falls, there is mercy in store. Before He touches creation, there is the sign of His covenant with the earth, just as when He is forced to pour down plagues on His people Israel, the ark of His covenant is seen. The rainbow was the witness that God had not let slip His ancient word: He could not forget it. The rainbow is the sign of mercy. It spans the heavens, and takes in earth and sea, the whole compass of that blessed security of which God had hung out the token on high. And now we have the rainbow not merely over the world, but round about the throne in heaven. This is not its usual place; but it was comforting for John to see, in the midst of all that bright glory, how God wished to fill the heart with confidence. He had not merely the vision of what was coming on earth, but in the circle of the divine manifestation and power the rainbow is seen above. If God shows us His own glory at the same time, the rainbow would tell us that God is true — that He was purposely putting man in mind of His pledge, given after the great judgment of old, and the rather as now He set it in this peculiar place, where a rainbow had never been seen before, in order to assure our hearts. But though peculiar, what could be more in character? For it is the throne of God the Almighty, the Creator and supreme Lord of all things.

Perhaps it is needless to remark that no such things will happen literally; but the vision was a panoramic sign, putting all before the eyes of the prophet — a most lively and admirable way of conveying what God meant to teach. When persons are once thoroughly founded in His grace, nothing is more important than the study of this book. But it may be injurious to souls who have not been so established to get absorbed in the Revelation.

First, then, we have the throne of One who is the centre and source of all the action, God’s glory and majesty being set forth by the symbol of the jasper and sardine; and next there is the rainbow, the familiar emblem of God’s faithfulness to creation. The rainbow was of a particular kind, “in appearance like an emerald” (verse 3). We could scarcely have colours more opposed than those which represented the divine majesty, and the emerald so refreshing for the eye to look upon. The Holy Ghost gives us a vivid impression by these simple symbols. For this book was not written for great scholars; it was intended for suffering saints. Even by men of the world it has been noticed, that the Revelation was specially the book sought into by persecuted Christians; and certain it is that, while those who make it a field for human research and speculation go wrong here and everywhere else, a general or even bright idea would present itself to the mind of in unlettered believer, who looks up to God and desires the glory of His Son.

The first thought suggested to one by the chapter is, that the only true place from which to look at the things coming to pass after the seven churches is heaven. It is not upon and from the earth that we can rightly judge of these events. It is from above that we must learn and look; if we are earthly-minded, we shall never understand them. If I am merely on the level of the scene upon which the judgments are passing, I shall endeavour to make the best of present things, and to put off the judgments; I am not entering in by the door opened in heaven. A heavenly standing must be taken as the ground, and the only ground, on which these visions can be rightly estimated.

The main object seen is God and His throne — His power ruling in providence. The throne is not in itself connected with priesthood, but with the power whence divine government proceeds. God would establish souls in the thought that He governs, even in the midst of all the wickedness that was to be developed in the time of the beasts, or the final apostacy. The vision is of the throne of One who did not need to be named, but who permits His glory to be seen as far as it can be by the creature. From His throne above He is dealing with the world. Then we have His throne surrounded by the remembrance of His covenant with creation. Next, in the fourth verse, the prophet sees that, round about the central throne of God, there are other thrones. The reason why thrones here are preferable to “seats” is, that it is an essential part of the vision to show that the persons seated there were possessed of kingly dignity. The same word means a throne and a seat, and the choice is only determined by the connection in which it stands. We should not say of a person in humble life that he was sitting upon a throne, nor of the sovereign when in state that he was upon a seat. We can judge by the subject-matter.

Around the throne of God then, in the scene of such glory as man perhaps never saw before, there are other thrones with elders seated on them — that is, those endowed with wisdom from on high, who entered into the thoughts and counsels of God. They are clothed in white raiment, answering to their priestly, as their crowns do to their kingly, dignity. They are clearly saints and at home in heaven by glory around the great central throne before the world’s judgment begins. The number of these is twenty-four, corresponding with the twenty-four courses of priesthood in Israel. When the forerunner of the Lord was to be born, his father Zacharias was a priest of the course or order of Abia. In 1 Chron. 24 we must look to see these divisions, and we find the eighth was the one in question. The priesthood was divided into these courses in order that each in succession might take up the work of the priesthood, every course having its own chief priest. The High Priest is not named here: we all know who He is; but we have the twenty-four elders answering to these twenty-four courses of priesthood, or rather to the chiefs who represented them (verse 4).

But a deeply interesting inquiry. arises: If these crowned and enthroned elders represent the heavenly saints, as few will deny, when and to what condition does the vision apply? Does it speak (1) of those who have departed to be with Christ? Or (2) does it foreshadow the manifested kingdom of Christ and His saints during the millennium? Now it appears certain that both these questions must be answered in the negative, and that the time of Revelation 4, and therefore the interval during which the elders are thus engaged on high, is after the separate state is over, as far as they are concerned, and before the millennial reign begins.

For (1) it is obvious that the symbol of the twenty-four elders implies the sum of the heads of the heavenly priesthood — not a part, however large, but the whole. There were just so many courses, and no more. In the vision they are complete; and in the reality, which it symbolizes, this can never be the case, while the saints are absent from the body and thus present with the Lord. During that state of things there will always be members of the church on the earth. For “we shall not all sleep.” And when, at the Lord’s return, the dead in Christ shall rise first, “we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” That is to say, the symbol understood and interpreted aright requires that all the members of Christ should be together and in the same condition; and as this will never be true of the separate spirits, it necessarily follows that the vision will be realized only when “we shall all be changed” and with the Lord.

But (2) it is clear, that whatever may be anticipatively presented in the songs of the elders, or of others who catch up as it were the chorus of their strains, both the actions of the elders, and the entire heavenly scenery, in which they take so prominent a part from Rev. 4 to Rev. 19, suppose that the reigning over the earth does not arrive as a literal fact till Christ and His saints have left heaven for the judgment of His enemies. But the full complement of the elders is made up a considerable time previously: none can deny they are in heaven before and during the seals, trumpets, and vials. The inference is plain. The saints represented by them must be as a whole in heaven before these judgments begin to be fulfilled. The millennium does not come till Rev. 20; the elders, shadowing the glorified saints, are with the Lord in their changed bodies lone, before. When He comes from heaven to the destruction of the beast, they follow, and with Him they subsequently reign for a thousand years. Others, I doubt not, will be joined with them in that reign: these will not be glorified in their bodies till Rev. 20, having suffered after the rapture of the church under the beast, etc. But Rev. 4 intimates, that the rapture will then have taken place, and that the saints caught up are viewed as a royal priesthood, interested, as having the mind of Christ, in the trials, sufferings, testimony, and hopes of those who succeed themselves, as witnesses for God, during the hour of temptation which will then come upon all the world, to try those that dwell on the earth. Even for the raptured saints on high it is not yet the time for the marriage of the Lamb; and therefore, as well as for other reasons, they are here regarded, not as the body or bride, but as kings and priests worshipping and as yet waiting for their manifestation in glory when they shall judge the world.

There is a solemn connection with this in Ezekiel, where we have twenty-five men named (Ezek. 8:16); and to my own mind it appears that they were the whole of the heads of the priesthood — the twenty-four chiefs and the high priest besides. But where were they now? Alas! they were the promoters of the idolatry and wickedness perpetrated in the temple of Jehovah. They were there not is those whose raiment told of the blood that cleanses, but the corrupters of God’s holy standard and the defilers of Israel, leading them on to apostacy; so that, if judgment is to be inflicted, it must begin with the house of God. There is a tacit contrast between the scene here described and that in Ezekiel. There we had the living creatures first, the symbol of the executive judgments Of God — of His judicial power putting down evil. The earthly result of the action of these living creatures, as seen in Ezekiel, might be the destruction of Jerusalem; but this was only what man saw.

The cherubim and the living creatures ( ζῶα) are the same substantially; they must be carefully distinguished from the beasts ( θηρία) we read of afterwards. The first mention of the cherubim is in the early part of the book of Genesis. (Gen. 3) When sin entered the world, immediately we find them: they were the beings to whom the work of judgment was entrusted. “He placed in the garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword, to keep the way of the tree of life.” The emblem of their power was the flaming sword. Again, if we look at the second book of Moses ‘ we find the cherubim in a new but blessed way. Where were they looking? Within. Had they been looking outwards, they would have seen sinners; had they looked under, that is, into the ark, they would have seen the law; but they were looking within on the mercy-seat, where the blood of atonement was sprinkled. There was the blood that spoke of the perfect mercy of God which had met and triumphed over sin; and there was the power of God — both combined in preserving the glory of God, and both really for man instead of against him.

If we examine this again in the time of Solomon, we find a remarkable difference. The position of the cherubim completely changes, for instead of looking within they are looking out, because Solomon’s day typifies the time of glory, when the true Man and Prince of Peace shall rule. And why should they not look out then? Sin will have been judged, and, instead of the goodness of the Believed falling as it were in drops here and there, the King shall come down like rain on the mown grass; as showers that water the earth, and the whole earth shall be filled with His glory — the just answer to the glory of David’s Son. When mercy will have had its full way, and judgment has been executed, there will be nothing to hinder the cherubim from proclaiming the goodness of the Jehovah.

But in Ezekiel a terrible crisis came. The mercy-seat had been despised, and Solomon’s glory had faded away. Israel was sinning with a high hand, and now the very temple itself was the spot where the greatest dishonour was done to God, and there the cherubim again as good as ask, Can God have nothing to do with this wicked people? Judgment must have its course. Accordingly they leave Israel, though they bring judgment on the land. They are only seen again as giving the signal for judgment, and putting it in force by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar.

We have the same thing in Revelation, with this difference, that in Ezekiel the living creatures are seen more in connection with the earth; and this may be the reason why they are there said to have wheels as well as wings. In Revelation, the earthly people being dropped for a season, and a heavenly people called, they are simply seen with the wings suited for heaven, and not the wheels suited for earth. From this omission it is easily seen that, if God is going to speak about judgment, the very form that the executive of His, judgment takes tells us that a heavenly interruption has come in, ere the world’s history is resumed. Is it not then of immense importance, if we are to view these things aright, to get a firm footing on the ground on which the apostle stood — to enter in, as it were, by the door opened in heaven?

But, besides this, “Out of the throne proceed lightnings, and voices, and thunders” (verse 5). Evidently this is not the throne that we draw near to; for ours is a throne of grace, and this is emphatically of judgment. Its aspect described here has nothing whatever to do with grace. There proceeds later on from the throne a stream clear as crystal, as in the view of the throne mentioned in Rev. 22; but here “are lightnings, and voices, and thunders,” etc., expressive of God’s terrors. Even the symbolic likeness given here of God’s Spirit is in keeping with it. “There were seven lamps [or torches] of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.” The Holy Ghost does not take the symbol of lamps of fire when God’s grace to the church is set forth. No doubt on the day of Pentecost we have tongues as of fire, a beautiful emblem of what God was then about to do; for it was divine force that gave those unlettered men to speak in every tongue. On the Lord Jesus He descended in the form of a dove; but this was quite a different thing from what we have in Revelation. Here it is the consuming power of the Spirit of God. Fire is the well-known emblem of the searching holiness of God. The Holy Ghost in full perfection as light and as a fire burning up evil is the representation that the Spirit gives of His own relation to this epoch. It is plain that the reference is not to the millennial kingdom, for then a stream clear as crystal is to proceed out of the throne of God; still less would such a symbol apply to His action in the body of Christ during the present time. Nor is God’s throne now one from which proceed lightnings and thunders.

To what period then is the reference? To a short space between the two, when God has done His present church-work and before the millennial glory begins. The present is the time when God is gathering out His heirs, joint-heirs with Christ, and forming the bride; and now there is a throne of grace where we may receive mercy and find grace for seasonable help. Here, on the contrary, His judgments issue from the throne, and the Holy Ghost is the Spirit of judgment and burning, just as much as the throne is judicial and the source of terrors for the earth. Thus then it is neither the peaceful era of the millennial glory nor the present display of unbounded grace, but a time between the two. It is not conceivable for a person to have just light upon this book who does not see that the Revelation fills up the interval after the Lord has taken the church, and before He comes out of heaven and the church along with Him. (Rev. 19) I speak, of course, of the prophetic visions which fill the body of the book, and not of the three introductory chapters, nor of the close, when the Lord is about to appear. There the whole scene is changed; the heavens are opened to send forth the Lord Jesus, for the purpose of putting the last stroke of judgment to man’s iniquity and Satan’s power, and then we have the full flow of blessing far and wide. Here we have the time that precedes it — an interval of most solemn character for the world, when the heavenly saints shall have been caught up.

“And before the throne there was a set of glass” (verse 6). It is not a sea of water, where persons could bathe, but a sea of glass. The Holy Ghost uses the washing of water now by the word for the purpose of purging defilement. There was no longer need for this in those before the throne. In Revelation 15 another class is mentioned as standing upon a sea of glass, showing that it is not there a question of the Spirit’s power in dealing with what is contrary to God, but the victory is won. So here all question of the trial of the heavenly saints is over. The scene where they had been tried is now closed (Rev. 4), and they are seated round God’s own throne.

Here too are the four living creatures, full of eyes before and behind, which are the symbol of discernment; for though it is judgment they have to execute, it is not, we need hardly say, unintelligible judgment. “The first living creature was like a lion, the second like a calf, the third had the face as of a man, and the fourth was like a flying eagle” (verse 7). The various symbols are taken from the heads of God’s creation here below, and represent different qualities of His judgments: the lion as the head of wild beasts, the ox or calf the head of cattle, man of intelligent beings, and the eagle of birds. The lion conveys the idea of strength or majestic power, the ox of patient endurance, the man of intelligence, and the eagle of rapidity. God shows us the strength, patience, intelligence, and rapidity with which His judgments should be executed. The four living creatures, having each of them six wings, denoted supernatural rapidity, and the eyes within intrinsic discernment (verse 8). Some have supposed, chiefly from the nearness of the living creatures to the supreme throne, that they, rather than the elders, must set forth the church.31 But this is quite a misconception. The reason, as it seems, why the living creatures are thus near, is because they are the judicial executive, and providential judgments will then be in progress. They characterize the action of the throne.

“And they have no rest day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” This is a remarkable word. It is not occupation with evil; but when God shows us the means or agencies by which He executes judgment, we have one unceasing cry as regards Him — “Holy, holy, holy.”

One of the most important features of this scene for the soul is that the elders symbolize the heavenly saints in glory, the heads of the heavenly priesthood, found in their blessed employ above. But observe that when they are seen there first they are perfectly familiar with the scene: there is no hurry and no anxiety. They are peacefully seated on the thrones. There is no trembling even in the presence of God. These thunders and lightnings and judgments might proceed from His throne, but still they sit peacefully on their thrones: not a single movement is produced. And what is it that does move them? They were entirely undisturbed by terror: judgment does not shake them from the thrones; but when those living creatures shall give glory and honour and thanks to; Him that sat on the throne, the four-and-twenty elders shall fall down, etc. Directly honour is given by the executors of judgment to Him that sat upon the throne, the elders worship. What satisfaction in God — what certainty that sin was at an end — does this show? He is surely going to judge, but He will not judge those who are made His righteousness in Christ. They are in sympathy with Him; and when the living creatures address God and ascribe glory and honour and thanks to Him, then it is that they rise from their thrones and are found prostrate before Him. More than that, in their homage they cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive the glory and the honour and the power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy will they were, and were created,” They enter into His personal worthiness in a way that the living creatures do not, and with greater spiritual intelligence. They are elders; they understand here the creatorial and providential glory of God, just as in Rev. 5 we see that they enter into the worthiness and work of the Lamb. “For thou didst create all things,” etc. It is not, “are created and were created;” but for His will, or pleasure, they were in existence, even as they were originated at first (verses 10, 11). Thus their praise embraces the two great thoughts in the chapter — the creation glory and the governmental glory of God. “They were” (or they existed now under the care and the government of God), “and they were created” (or to Him they owed their origination).

It is not merely what we shall feel then that God reveals to us; but He desires us to enter now into what we shall have then. This glory is given us already. Assuredly we shall not have such a place then, if we have not got its title upon earth. It is ours now by faith, though then we shall have it in its fulness. What enables the elders to be so calm in the midst of judgment? That which God had done for them through the cross of Jesus. But God has done this now. In Christ was wrought as perfect a work upon earth as there could be in heaven. He will not do another or a better work there, though it may be enjoyed more above. But God has revealed this scene to His own that they may now enter into it intelligently, and may be worshippers according to its spirit, even upon earth, seeing the glory which will be theirs in heaven. Worship is a more serious thing than is supposed by many. Anything that does not suit the presence of God in heaven is unfit for the presence of God on earth, Even in outward things He looks for our hearts to be exercised. It is a bad sign when the children of God allow themselves in any thing that is inconsistent with His presence. We are responsible that the worship of God should be conducted in a way worthy of Him — in solemnity but in liberty. We should be careful that we do not distract others, but rather help one another to enjoy Him better.,

The Lord grant that, walking in holy liberty, and remembering that it is not the order of the flesh or of forms that we have to keep up, we may be preserved from thinking that His order is less reverent than man’s! May He vouchsafe us to seek what becomes the presence of Him whom we come together to exalt! He has given us the place of worshippers: may we worship Him in spirit and in truth! A better relation or employment God Himself could not give even in heaven.

30 The application of the jasper, in the account of the heavenly city, seems decisively to set aside the notion that the colour of this stone was intended to convey something in the appearance very awful as well as glorious. It is utterly out of the question to attribute such a feature to the New Jerusalem, of which the figure is used still more emphatically. I cannot but think, therefore, that we must search for a meaning in keeping with both, and that the idea of glory and splendour best meets all requirements.

31 All admit that the cherubim are invariable attendants on the throne of God, and that they were therefore, when in the most holy place, made of the same piece of gold as the ark — itself on which Jehovah sat. But it is argued that, though in till the Old Testament instances they were angelic, because the law had been ordained by angels (Gal. 3:17), they might become human in the Apocalypse, because the world to come is to be made subject to man. (Hebrews 2:5.) Thus the cherubim and the elders would represent the saints in a twofold aspect, active and contemplative. And certainly it is a notable fact, as another has remarked, that before the Lamb appears and takes the book, there are no angels mentioned who praise, and the cherubim or living creatures only express or celebrate the holy character of God, but are not associated with intelligent worship; whereas, when the Lamb is in the scene, the elders and cherubim join in intelligent worship, and the angels are expressly distinguished. But more may be said when we treat of Revelation 5.