June 6th 2021: Johnny Raine

Revelation 4

“How dare you!” says another student teenager from Sweden to the most powerful leaders around. She carries on, “People are suffering, people are dying, systems and entire eco systems are collapsing. We are in the beginnings of a mass extinction.” What about the group known as Extinction Rebellion, who are actually having a protest this week at the G7 summit? Their website says this, “We are facing an unprecedented global emergency. Life on earth is in crisis. Scientists agree we have entered a period of abrupt climate breakdown and are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.” Now, I don’t want to minimise the importance of looking after the environment, caring for animals, keeping the oceans clean and reducing our emissions across the world. All that is important, all of that is vital and is part of God’s first great mission for us in Genesis chapter one, the very first chapter of the Bible. But what are we to make of this kind of talk that we’re in a crisis, that the whole world is in a crisis, that we’re on the brink of a collapse?

If you were to operate with the mindset of this world, that this is all there is, then we probably have a reason to be very concerned, perhaps even hysterical. But the Christian worldview should take a different view to this. In fact, the biblical mindset should actually heighten our concern for environmental issues, but it should do so with less of a hysterical attitude, less panic and less fear. This is not just about environmental issues, this is about many other things as well; we think of nuclear weapons and the potential for global war, we can think about the way there is such tension in the world that we live in, so much polarised opinions about what is right and what is wrong. We can even think, as we’re all too aware, and seeing your masked faces today, about the Pandemic. Should we be hysterical, should we be concerned that we’re on the brink of collapse because of Covid 19? Well, we’ve got Revelation 4 to help us here.

For the churches of the 1st century, as this was written to them, were facing all kinds of issues themselves. But when you look at chapters two and three, for example, there are all kinds of issues in these seven historical churches: there was a church that needed to recover its primary love, a church that needed to cling on in light of the suffering that was about to come their way, there was a church that needed to watch out they didn’t compromise with the world, a church that needed to bring back some spiritual life because they were all but dead. There’s one that needs strength in their weaknesses because there were some of their community that were trying to get rid of them. There’s a church that needed to stop being so self-sufficient in their wealth.

There are churches facing all of these kinds of issues today around the world but also here in the UK. We might think that if there are churches facing all these issues today, churches that are compromised, churches that are as good as dead, churches that are faithful under great suffering and persecution, is there a hope for the future? Can we adapt the words Extinction Rebellion and say this about the church, ‘We are facing an unprecedented global ecclesiastical emergency, the church on earth is in crisis.’ Theologians and missiologists agree that we have entered a period of abrupt ecclesiastical breakdown, or we are in the midst of a mass extinction as Christians of our own making. So, our planet in crisis, our health system is in crisis, the church is in crisis. Shall we ramp up the fear? At the risk of giving the game away far too early, the answer is ‘No.’ But why is that?  Well, you’d have to read the whole of the book of Revelation to find that out, because that’s what the rest of the book is essentially about. But for this chapter today, what we need is a vision of the sovereign Lord, the God who is in control of everything.

You are probably familiar with the book of Acts which tells the story of how churches spread across the world in the 1st century up until the 60s. In many ways, Revelation is a retelling of the history of the Church, of the church in the 1st century, but from a very different angle.

We are given a heavenly perspective of what is going on. We see that clearly in the first verse here. John sees this door in heaven and he’s invited to go into heaven and see what is going on, what is going on behind the scenes and what will take place. He is in the spirit (in verse two) and he enters into this continuing vision that actually began in chapter one of Revelation. He goes right into the most sacred part of heaven, the very throne room of God. The immediate focus as he gets into the throne room of God is, of course, on God Himself. He is the one who is sat on the throne, He is the one who sits in the position of sovereign rule over all things. Imagine if you were in John’s shoes – you went into the throne room of heaven. Perhaps one of the first questions you might ask is, ‘What does God look like?’

Whatever image of God is presented in the Bible, we are never shown a direct image of God. We don’t see Him directly. We are given indirect allusions to His appearance. That’s because the core truth of who God is, is that we cannot look at Him and live. He, in His Holiness and brilliance, is so awesome that if we saw a direct image of God, or even if we conceived of a direct image of God, we would melt before Him because we are mortal, fallible creatures.

One vision of God that this chapter particularly refers to and draws on, is the material from Ezekiel. It is one of those books that we perhaps struggle with and perhaps don’t spend too much time reading. But it’s a wonderful book. In Ezekiel chapter one Ezekiel is given a clear vision of who God is. It’s just an amazing image. So, Revelation here particularly draws on Ezekiel chapter one.

Ezekiel sees the throne of God and as Ezekiel spends time describing what is going on, he describes what goes on around the throne of God rather than describing the One who sits on the throne. Ezekiel says, “Above the vault over their heads was what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. Above the vault over their heads was what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.” (Ezekiel 1:25-27).  

He’s describing what goes on around the throne rather than One who is on the throne. So back in Revelation chapter 4 verse three you have John saying that God’s appearance is like all of these precious gems. His appearance is something like Jasper, a ruby which has very bright, luminous colours as it reflects and refracts light and spreads and shines it out.  Surrounding Him was the full spectrum of colour, so that the whole rainbow is encircling the throne. Also referred to in Revelation chapter 1, there’s a rainbow there as well, but somehow this rainbow looks like a shining emerald, just part of the contrasts that go on in Revelation, things that can’t quite square up in in our understanding.

So, where it is the fieriness of Ezekiel, with a bright glowing metal that looks like there is fire there, or whether it is John seeing these beautiful gems that are there before him, shimmering and sparkling, the point is that the any image of God is just far too overwhelming, and brilliant and bright, awe-invoking. But that’s all we are given because we can’t see God Himself. Using the brightest, most colourful, most wonderful things that we’ve got in this world of gems and fire, that is all we can muster up to describe God. Actually Ezekiel, at the end of chapter one, says, This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.”

John is not seeing the Lord, he is not even seeing His glory, he is not even seeing the likeness of His glory. He is seeing the appearance of the likeness of His glory – that’s four times removed from a direct image of God. So even these visions of God in the Bible, even this vision of God in Revelation chapter one, there is barely a hint of the wonderful appearance of God Himself.

So then John, having given us a hint of the appearance of God, then moves on to describe who else is in the throne room of God. So, he begins in verse four with these 24 thrones, along with these 24 thrones are 24 elders, every one dressed in white, gold crowns on their heads. Wonderful imagery. White clothing, as we may know, is the picture of God’s people in purity. Crowns represent the victory of having kept faithful to God throughout their lives, having reached the end of the goal of their faith.

I think these 24 beings, these heavenly elders, represent the fullness of the church, both before and after Jesus. Before Jesus came, we had 12 tribes of Israel. In Jesus’s time and beyond we have 12 apostles who are the foundation of the church. Simple maths, 12 and 12 is 24. It’s something that crops up throughout the whole Book of Revelation. So, you’ve got these representatives of the whole of the church, both before and after Jesus. They are then representing us before God in the throne room of God, which is wonderful.

But then the drama ramps up from here. From the throne comes these flashes of lightning. There are rumbles or possibly shouts and then you’ve got these peals of thunder. I’m sure you all remember when we’ve had a dark, stormy night and been woken up by a thunderstorm. Perhaps you’ve seen either flashes of lightning or heard the distant rumble of thunder? It can be fearful. These thunderstorms in heaven, around the throne room of God, are there to invoke a sense of awe within us.

Then, because this throne room is the temple, it needs a few temple artefacts. In fact, Hebrews tells us that the earthly temple in the Old Testament was actually modelled on the heavenly temple. So here we have some of the objects that were in the Old Testament temple of God. We’ve got the lampstand, which is the next thing to capture John’s attention, the sevenfold lampstand. And that is, as we are told, to represent the 7 spirits of God (by the way, that’s not to say there are seven Holy Spirits of God. The number seven is simply used that to show completeness and perfectness of the Holy Spirit). Then you have this sea of glass that was like crystal.

But then there’s one last thing that captures John’s attention – and they are very weird. You’ve got these four living creatures who were introduced to us at the end of verse six. We are first told that they are around the throne of God. They have eyes all over them, even under their wings, which is pretty strange to think about. It just means they see everything, I think. They have six wings. The first creature is like a lion, the second one is like an ox, the next one has a face like a man and the fourth is like a flying eagle. Those four creatures are the four pinnacles of their territory: the lion is the king of beasts, the ox is the strongest of all of the domesticated animals, the human is the ruler of all the creatures and the eagle is the king of the sky.

The number four is used to talk about geographic completeness: north, south, east and west. We have four creatures covering the entirety of the earth. So I think these four living creatures represent all of the creatures from all across the world, from all different animal kinds, including the human beings and pets.

 As we allude back to Ezekiel, these living creatures are mentioned in Ezekiel chapter 1 – four of them again, except they are slightly different. It tells us in Ezekiel chapter 1 that that all of these creatures have four faces,Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Each had two wings spreading out upward, each wing touching that of the creature on either side; and each had two other wings covering its body.” (Ezekiel 1: 10-11)

So, they are a little bit different in Ezekiel, but nevertheless it’s the same kind of creature representing all creatures before God’s throne. It’s just overwhelming, isn’t it? To think about these creatures with their faces, with their wings, their eyes all over them.

Now so far everything seen is pretty much in static. It’s as if you put on the film in Revelation but you’ve put it in pause and all you see is this static image with the exception, perhaps, of the lightning that needs to move, doesn’t it. Everything else hasn’t needed to be in motion yet. So, it’s come on in pause and we’ve yet to press play. But because it’s being paused we’ve been able to glance at every detail that is on the screen. So, we’ve been given a hint of the One who’s at the centre of it all. The Sovereign Lord rules from His throne in His brilliance and in His splendour. In accord with His brilliance we have glimpsed all of the brilliance going on around Him: the temple, the 24 elders on the throne that represent the entirety of church, the four living creatures that represent all creative beings. So we had a glimpse of it all. But what are we to make all this so far?

I think one thing is for us to recognise that God is so unapproachable, He’s so incomprehensible, He is so unseeable. We could never grasp the entirety of God. He is far beyond our reach – and that’s not least because of our limited brain. We don’t have the capacity to fully grasp Him because of the limitedness of our brain but also the limitlessness of God because He is beyond limit, so it is impossible for us to grasp it. But it’s also because His brilliance emanates from His holiness; His brilliant shines out of His Holiness. When we compare ourselves to him in His Holiness, we are nothing. We see our imperfectness, we see our sinfulness, we see all of our flaws before this holy and perfect God. It’s because of that that we can’t fully grasp God. For us, trying to approach God and trying to understand Him in our sinfulness is a bit like a refuse worker or someone who collects the rubbish coming straight from work and trying to get into a fancy, Michelin star restaurant, dressed in their work clothes and not had a shower. They will be refused entry. It’s like us trying to grasp God in our simpleness and His holiness.

If we tried to grasp God in our simpleness, if we tried to enter His presence as flawed as we are, then we would simply melt before Him. He is so perfect, especially compared to us. On one hand God is far beyond our grasp and yet He is also not completely unknowable. John, in his vision, doesn’t have nothing of God, he’s able to grasp something of Him. That’s because he’s been invited up. He has seen something and so we too should be able to recognise how privileged we are to know something about God.

The Bible tells us that everyone knows something about God just by looking at the world around us. What a good thing that is for God to give us this world, to look at it and see He is powerful, He’s made everything, He is eternal and stands above the creation. Jesus had invited John to see something of who God is. He has shown us who the Father is. When we look to Jesus we are privileged to see something of who God is. It’s wonderful, isn’t it?

Well, to finish up our time in chapter 4, as we’ve seen everything in pause so far, we need to press play. At the end of verse eight we are told what these living creatures say. It’s put in several Bibles as a quoted section, formatted slightly differently so it stands out. They say “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to Come!”

They don’t just say it once, they don’t just sing that at the top of their voices once and think ‘We’ve done with that now, we’ve said it don’t need to say it again.’ No, they never stop saying it. In fact, day and night they say it over and over again. It’s not just them saying something here; whenever they say, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to Come!” it is almost like a starting pistol for the 24 elders, who then respond by doing something and saying something.

So whenever they hear that phrase, they then respond by bowing down before God, they take off their crowns and put them in front of God, and they say (which is seen in verse 11 and is also formatted differently), “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

But no sooner had the 24 elders finished saying that, finished bowing down, then saying, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created,” then the four-legged creatures will say their bit again, and as soon as they finish saying “… by your will they existed and were created,” then you’ve got for living creatures, who once again say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to Come!” 

What happens when they say that? Well, that triggers the 24 elders again to bow down before God, cast their crowns before Him and say, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” And so it goes on – back to the living creatures, back to the elders, in this constant cycle of praise as they recognise who God is.

But when we look at those things they tell us a few things about God that are important for us to hang onto. It tells us He’s absolutely holy – that’s why they say it three times, to really emphasise that He’s absolutely holy, that He’s the Lord God Almighty, that He’s eternal, that He is worthy of praise, that He deserves recognition and esteem and authority. Everything that is and everything that continues to exist is by His will. He’s made everything in the first place, and He keeps everything going. Therefore, He is worthy of worship.

So, from all this, we see that God deserves our perpetual worship. He deserves all of the perpetual worship that ever there could be. He deserves that worship to go on forever and ever. He deserves one choir to declare His unique being, only for another choir to declare His sovereign worth. He deserves it! He deserves our worship.

 Do you ever find it repetitive coming to church every week? You come week after week. We do the same thing week in, week out – a slightly different hymn, slightly different reading, a different preacher this week to last week. We’re doing the same thing over and over again. Do we ever find it repetitive? Maybe we do, but that’s because of our sinful nature, that’s because of our flaws.

But God he deserves our praise. Perhaps you find it hard coming in these in these times we’re  living in, with these restrictions? You hate wearing masks? I hate wearing masks, I hate that we can’t sing, that we’re not supposed to talk to each other too long at the end of service. These are frustrating times. Perhaps it makes our repeated worship, week in week out, even harder to do. But God is worthy of it. He deserves our worship and He deserves it to be done over and over and over again. And after all, if God is, as we have said, beyond our full grasp, then we will never be able to declare the fullness of who He is. We will never be able to tell Him fully how amazing He is.

Coming week by week and telling Him something a little bit different each week, something a little bit more of God’s glorious splendour each week, will build up into this big picture of who God is and how He deserves our worship. We need to remember that every time we gather in worship, when we spend time throughout the week, morning, evening, reading your Bible and praying, that God is worthy of our repeated worship everyday of our lives. And when we do that, when we read the Bible on our own and pray, when we gather each Sunday and worship, we’re joining in the perpetual worship of heaven. As the temple of God is meeting, even right now, we’re joining in their worship. Our worship started at 10:30 a.m. this morning but we joined in what was already going on in heaven. Revelation 4 is always going on in heaven. We are simply joining in this morning. He deserves our worship. He deserves us to join Him and declare His work.

So, as we began, is the world going to end? Are we on the edge of collapse? Are we in danger of mass extinction? Is the natural order about to cease to exist? Are humans going to be wiped out by Coronavirus? Well, we need not be fearful. Everything that exists is by God’s control, by His sovereign hand. It will not cease to exist except for Him allowing it to stop. It is by God’s will that anything exists, and it is by His will that we, as humans, and every other creature on this Earth, continues to have their being. It is by His will. We see He is the sovereign Lord who is on the throne of heaven, who is in control of all things, who holds all things His hands. He is unapproachable yet He has revealed Himself to us and He is worthy of all of our worship.

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