Before I continue my series on the book of Revelation by diving in to chapter 4, I want to share a little personal life update. Just over a week ago, during the Labor Day weekend, we had something of a catastrophe at our house! Our dishwasher malfunctioned quite dramatically and flooded water all over our kitchen. Due to the type of floorboards we had, that water managed to seep beneath the floor and spread throughout half the house.
Since it was a holiday weekend, it was three days before we could get a service crew out to help take care of all the water damage. As you can imagine, having water seeping through our floors for three days was… well, let’s just call it less than ideal! Thankfully our insurance is helping cover it somewhat, and we’ve been able to stay temporarily with nearby family. So it could certainly have been worse! But there is a lot of work ahead to be done. And anyone who’s experienced a situation like this knows just how disruptive, stressful, and chaotic it can be. Home repair isn’t my idea of a good time!
But as I’ve thought about it, I realize that this actually fits in well with some of the lessons we can glean from the next section of Revelation.
John’s Vision of God’s Throne Room
John (the apostle John, I believe) was also experiencing a time of disruption and displacement — one that was far more intense than my home repairs! And his original readers were being put under tremendous pressure from their society because of their loyalty to Jesus. Chaos was erupting in their culture, and it looked like things were only going to get worse.
In the midst of those tumultuous days, John gets invited to step into the spiritual realm to see what God has in store for the days ahead. And from Revelation 4 on through the rest of the book, he is going to be treated to a preview of how God plans to resolve all the problems his people face. God is going to deliver on all the promises he’s made that have yet to be fulfilled, and he’s going to bring all the chaos of our fallen world to a redemptive conclusion. (If you haven’t yet, be sure and check out my previous post for a breakdown of how Revelation 4-22’s plot progresses.)
And the primary, driving vision — what Eugene Boring calls “the theological fountainhead and anchor point for the whole document” (Revelation, IBC,102) — is the glimpse of God’s heavenly throne room in Revelation 4-5. Before we ever get to any terrifying scenes of judgment or plagues or wrath, we are first reminded of God’s splendor and sovereignty.
Despite the chaos on earth, God is in control of the situation. And even in the midst of the chaos, he is still worthy of worship. Revelation will explain how all this can be, even when the book’s readers may have every reason to question it if they focus only on their physical circumstances.
As chapter 4 opens, we’re treated to a glimpse of heaven’s throne room. It’s a scene that’s dense with imagery and symbolism, but the overall impression is awe-inspiring. John even seems to have trouble finding words to describe it — he can only say the closest thing it resembles, like precious gemstones, blinding light, and halos.
The layout is like a central hub — there’s a majestic throne in the middle, and it’s surrounded by concentric circles of celestial beings of various kinds. Everything surrounds and is focused on the One seated on the throne. This is all set atop a clear floor that resembles a dazzling “sea of crystal” or a “layer of ice” (compare the vision in Ezekiel 1:22-28), allowing the One on the throne to look down and see all the goings-on in the universe below.
As “flashes of lightning and rumblings and peals of thunder” come from the throne (4:5), a tone of expectation is set — after all, these are the phenomena that accompanied special revelations of God’s presence in the Old Testament (see Exodus 19:16; Job 37:4-5; Ezekiel 1:4). John is about to be shown something incredibly significant, and the anticipation is high.
The picture is one of order, splendor, and the buzz of activity. The heaven that John sees is not the boring scene people often think of from classical art — lazy spirits sitting on fluffy clouds strumming harps. No, this is a lively command center! And John has just been invited into their staff meeting! He gets to observe as God and his council form their strategy for the immediate future.
Comfort from the Throne
As I reflect on this chapter in the midst of our home disaster situation, there’s one little detail I find oddly comforting. I’ve mentioned it already, but it’s the fact that the floor of God’s throne room is clear. It symbolizes God’s perfect awareness of all that is transpiring in the world “below.”
It brings a passage of the Old Testament to my mind — and quite possibly it brought it to the minds of John’s original readers too, since they were even more deeply steeped in the Old Testament than I am. It’s Psalm 33:13-19:
“The Lord looks down from heaven;
he observes everyone.
He gazes on all the inhabitants of the earth
from his dwelling place.
“He forms the hearts of them all;
he considers all their works.
A king is not saved by a large army;
a warrior will not be rescued by great strength.
The horse is a false hope for safety;
it provides no escape by its great power.
“But look, the Lord keeps his eye on those who fear him—
those who depend on his faithful love
to rescue them from death
and to keep them alive in famine.”
In other words, the fact that God sees all is meant to give comfort to those believers who are in the midst of stressful situations. God is not unaware of our difficulties. What’s more, he cares about what concerns us (see 1 Peter 5:7). Heaven is not indifferent to our pain.
When John is invited into the throne room to see the goings-on of God’s court, he does not behold an undisturbed tranquility. Frequently preachers will point to this chapter’s vision of God on his throne and say, “See?! God is in control! Nothing catches him by surprise. We have nothing to fear!”
All true enough; and yet thinking about it this way can sometimes seem like cold comfort, as we think heaven is untouched by our struggles. But that is not the case. Yes, God is in charge. But his reign does not come without struggle; it comes in spite of and through it.
Indeed, in the chapters to come there will be crises in heaven just as there were and are crises on earth! In chapter 5, we will see angels in a tizzy over the difficulty of finding one worthy to open the scroll of God’s plan for history. In 6:9-11, we will see the souls of martyrs in heaven crying out for vindication and being told to wait just a little longer. And even though heaven is indeed filled with continual, day-and-night worship of God (4:8-11), it is not to be pictured as a never-ending party, with the angels stopping their ears to the cries of saints below. Rather, the praises are there to drown out the continual, day-and-night accusations of Satan against God’s people (12:10)!
I say all this in the hopes of giving comfort and encouragement to others like me, who may be feeling the weight and stress of uncertain and uncomfortable times. God is not ignorant of our troubles. Nor is he indifferent to them. God sees.
So when we encounter hard times, it is true and important to affirm that God is “still on his throne,” in the sense that he is in control of the situation and is bringing about redemptive ends from all our sufferings — large or small — as we hold to our faith in Christ. But when we say “God is on his throne,” and we picture Revelation 4, we do well to remember that God’s throne is not so remote as we might think. It is not a picture of an indifferent despot sitting above all our petty problems; rather, it is a reminder that the One ultimately in charge of everything is also our heavenly Father who cares enough to keep track of how many hairs are on our heads (Luke 12:6-7).
As Isaiah 57:15 so poignantly puts it, God is “the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy,” and yet at the same time he deigns to dwell “with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
God is both transcendent (greater than his creation) and immanent (near to his creatures), and that combination is the greatest source of comfort in times of struggle.
So if you, too, are feeling the heavy weight of difficulties around you, remember that God sees. And God cares. We can call out to him for help in our weaknesses. The One who sits on the throne of the universe is the same one who so “loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Depend on him today.
(Next time we’ll talk more about the other beings in God’s throne room — the mysterious “elders” and “living creatures.” Stay tuned!)
See you down the path.