The ruler - Revelation 4
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There is the story of the Texan farmer whose great grandfather was a crofter in Scotland. After the family emigrated they became very prosperous. One day the farmer decided to visit the place of his origins, and so he went to Scotland and eventually found the actual croft in which his family had lived a century or so ago. He marvelled to the Scottish farmer who now lived there: ‘Everything’s so small here. I can drive around your little farm in a couple of minutes, but at my ranch in Texas it sometimes takes me half an hour to drive from the freeway to my ranch house.’ The farmer nodded and replied, ‘I know what you mean. I used to have a car like that ...’
Many of the things we perceive as problematic are in fact a matter of perspective. Get your perspective wrong and you get everything else wrong. It was GK Chesterton who once said that it is better to live in the valley than on the mountain top. For when you are on the mountain everything seems so small and it is you who are big and important. But in the valley you look up and see the mountains and it is you who are small and so you are reminded of God. Now as we have been seeing over the last few weeks, the Book of Revelation is designed to restore that sense of divine perspective to God’s people suffering on earth. The veil is being lifted to reveal the unseen heavenly reality which shapes and determines all the realities we can see.
Now it would be a mistake to think that the letters we have been looking at addressed to the seven churches representing of all churches throughout the world and throughout time, is a kind of literary interlude, so that now we have got those out of the way we can start on the really interesting stuff. No. We have come across a whole range of churches which are a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. Some Christians have allowed their love grow cold; other Christians have gone down the broad road of compromise, while still others have sought to remain faithful and paid the price- in some cases the ultimate price- martyrdom. Tell me, what is it which is going to get some of these Christians back on track and keep others on track? Well, it isn’t going to be some kind of pep talk urging them to try harder- like the comments I used to get at the bottom of my school reports. What is going to make all the difference in the world is a heart-thumping, mind expanding, spine tingling vision of God. That is why the depths of chapter 3 are followed by the heights of chapter 4.
The first thing John sees as he is escorted through the open door into heaven is the centrality of God: 2 ‘At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. 3 And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne.’ As John writes this, many of his readers are undergoing persecution by the ruling Roman authorities-being burnt at the stake, thrown to the lions, tied between wild horses and then torn apart-that’s what’s happening. And so for many of these people there was only one throne which dominated everything else, and that was the throne of Caesar. But God wants his children to know that behind that throne are other thrones until eventually there is the throne fixed securely in heaven. From the perspective of John’s congregations-in the valley- the local magistrates are a terror, the provincial rulers are awesome, the Emperor is supreme and unbelievably cruel. How do you handle that? How do you live in North Korea as a Christian? Well, you do so by adopting the perspective of the Book of Revelation, viz. that there is only one throne which counts and the one who rules from that throne is almighty, all knowing and all good.
What is more, the description of the one who occupies this throne is simply breathtaking. He is like jasper which is white and sparkles like a diamond; carnelian which is fiery red like a ruby, and emerald which is a glittering green. And the word for rainbow could mean the vertical multicoloured bow we see in the sky after rain or something horizontal, more like a halo- and of course the rainbow takes us back to the sign given by God after the flood, a sign of mercy and peace. That is what rules in heaven. But the point of the vision is this: that taken together the effect is to evoke a picture of entrancing beauty. Reading this we are meant to grasp the truth that the most mesmerising, heart winning, mind engrossing scene in the entire universe is God seated upon his throne. The nearest thing that I can think of which I have experienced which doesn’t evenly come remotely close to this was last year when Heather and I had the privilege of seeing the Northern Lights. What happens is that you slowly make your journey towards the cold wilderness beneath a black sky studded with stars. Then faintly at first you see a green glow beginning to dance on the horizon, then the glow starts to gain in intensity and the dance of the lights becomes more elaborate. Then you step out and you look up and you see it. It’s as if a giant green and yellow curtain begins to ripple over the mountains and then the configuration suddenly changes so there appears a green and yellow crown with flecks of red forming directly overhead- and this display just goes on and on completely transfixing in its effect. And at the time I remember turning to Heather and saying this must be what it is like entering into heaven. It was that spectacular- almost otherworldly. And your mind is left racing with the beauty of it all. Well, something like that, but a million times more glorious is what is happening to John. But will you notice all that he sees is like this or that- because there is really nothing on earth which even begins to correspond to what God is really like in heaven- but he makes a stab at describing what he sees by using pictures and symbols of diamonds and rubies and seas of glass. Just how do you describe a God who is purer than the driven snow, who is more magnificent than the most stunning sunset, who is more entrancing than the most glittering diamonds strewn on a black velvet cloth, who is more loving and compassionate than the ideal parent and who is more powerful than all the forces of nature unleashed simultaneously? Well, you strain human language to the limit by using symbols and metaphors. That is what he is doing. The pictures are designed not to provide a catalogue of facts about God, but to move us to worship God in all his transcendent majesty.
But then John is captivated by the holiness of God which comes out in several ways. First, by the way the divine throne is enhanced by spectacular heavenly beings-v4, ‘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.’ No one knows for certain who these elders are, but let me suggest that they are some form of higher angelic beings. For instance in chapter 14:3, we are told that Christian believers appear to be singing a new song which even the elders cannot learn-so they are hardly fellow Christians. In chapter 7 the throne is pictured again, but this time everything is laid out as a series of concentric rings. Right at the centre you have God’s throne. On the outer ring is great multitude of believers. Then there are angels, then the elders and finally the four living creatures, which as we shall see in a moment are the cherubim, the highest order of angels. So these elders appear between the two, indicating that they also are heavenly beings, probably the seraphim. And their number- 24 serves a representative function-these angels represent before God’s throne the entire people of God-12 tribes of Israel in the OT and the 12 apostles in the New. This means that God’s people are never without supernatural representatives in heaven, which means that God never forgets them for a single moment. That is how much you are of value to God; he has so arranged the courtroom of heaven to make sure you are never forgotten.
But what are they doing in heaven? Well, they are part of the sustained image that appears throughout the Book of Revelation which distances God from us. Let me explain: Imagine that you came to see me at the Vicarage. If my wife doesn’t answer the door, it will be me, and seeing your charming face I will invite you in straight away. But you couldn't do that say, with the Queen. If you were to receive an invitation from her Royal majesty to go to Buckingham Palace, you would have to have special documentation, arrive at a certain gate, be met by some under secretary, shown to a certain room and you would have to wait until a senior secretary or advisor took you into the Queen’s presence. That is how things work. The higher we go in terms of a person’s importance and dignity, the more difficult and complex it is to get into their presence. Now if that is so on a human level, how much more so is it on the level of the divine, with the one whose eyes are so pure that they cannot even look upon iniquity? If you like, you may think of these as dignitaries that have to be satisfied before you get to Divinity-like royal courtiers.
And this is emphasised even more with the next few images as we see, ‘5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. 6 Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.’
First, the lightening and thunder. In the days before the nuclear bomb what would be the most powerful, destructive force the ancients could have referred to? It would have been a thunderstorm. Not the tame things we tend to have in this country, but the dark, wild, booming electrical storms you see on the great continents. When thunder erupts there the whole ground shakes. When lightening strikes the whole sky is lit up. And when God met with his people at Sinai, this is what they saw and you know what? They were terrified. Nature in the raw, nature unleashed at its most violent is what encircles the throne of God. And so to think that one can blithely walk into his presence is as suicidal as walking into a nuclear holocaust -it cannot be done.
Secondly, the seven lamps, a reflection of the seven fold spirit, which signifies the perfection of God’s Holy Spirit-seven being the perfect number- and so His Spirit is perfect in wisdom, perfect in righteousness, perfect in power and so on. This underscores to us the fact that God’s presence is mediated to us by His Spirit but in such a way that God still keeps a certain distance-he can meet us on earth while still remaining in heaven. To use the jargon, God remains transcendent while being imminent. You cannot bring God down to our level.
And thirdly, the sea of glass probably means the same thing-creating an insuperable barrier. So the question is: how is John who is watching all of this to get near to that throne? He looks and there is this sea of glass which is vast, then the seven fold spirit which mediates whatever there is of God to his creation, and then the blinding storm which separates God, then concentric ranks of angels and archangels and even then he sees a God in such a way that it can only be spoken of in terms of metaphor and simile. In order for John or any of us to have the slightest chance of getting near to this God a bridge is needed, a mediator, someone who can take us over into God’s presence. Just who that is, we shall see next week when we turn to chapter 5.
But at this point let me ask a simple question: Is this how we view God? Or is he still pocket size? You see, unless we grasp how great God is, how holy God is, how utterly different God is to anything we can see or imagine or conceive then we shall never appreciate his grace and his extraordinary condescending love. That this God should even bother, let alone be able, to have a relationship with someone like me is meant to astonish us. But the astounding truth of this book is that he does just that.
And so we come to the praise of God with the four living creatures orchestrating the worship of heaven, ‘In the centre, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7 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. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings.’ Often ancient thrones were made so they looked as if they rested on creatures, so King Solomon had lion’s heads protruding from his throne, and we see something like that here. But these creatures have characteristics of the highest order of angels-the cherubim. They have wings and different faces representing different aspects of God. One is like a lion-a symbol of royalty. One, an ox-a symbol of strength. One, the face of a man, indicating intelligence. Another an eagle- the ability to act swiftly. All these attributes find their perfection in God. So not only do these creatures enhance God’s throne and co-ordinate praise to the one on that throne, but their symbolism suggests that God’s throne rests on royal decree-he alone has the wisdom to do what is perfectly right, he alone has the power to bring it about, and he alone can act swiftly -at the right time and in the right way for the sake of his people. That is the message conveyed by the symbol of these cherubim uplifting the throne of God.
And will you notice what they do?-v 8b, ‘Day and night they never stop saying: “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come.” The closer you get to God, the more praise there is-the four living creatures constantly praise him, and then the whole of heaven gets caught up in the chorus of praise as we see in v9-10. In the first instance God is praised simply because of who he is. He is holy-which is tantamount to saying God is God. But he is also worthy of praise because he is our Creator- ‘you created all things.’ Maybe you are here this morning and you are not yet a Christian. You say, ‘Why should I let God into my life? What’s it got to do with him?’ Well, let me tell you that that would be like a son or daughter saying to their parent, ‘Why should I let you into my life?’ Well, God made you that’s why. He has a right to be at the centre of your life. And without him your life will never have a centre and so no stability, you will be forever like a piece of tissue blown about by the wind. And your life will never make sense. But when this God is at the centre then everything changes, because we discover what we were made for and who we were made for- to know and worship God. And worship isn’t some form of airy fairy self- indulgence. This is the way the writer, Sam Storms, puts it: ‘Worship is eminently practical because adoring and affectionate praise is what restores our sense of ultimate value. It exposes the worthless and temporary and tawdry stuff of this world. Worship energises the heart to seek satisfaction in Jesus alone. In worship we are reminded that this world is fleeting and unworthy of our hearts devotion. Worship connects our souls with the transcendent power of God and awakens in us appreciation for beauty. It pulls back the veil of deception and exposes the ugliness of sin and Satan. Worship is a joyful rebuke of the world. When our hearts are riveted on Jesus everything else in life becomes so utterly unnecessary and we become far less demanding.’ (One Thing pp 70-71). In other words, we become better people- more contented people, people who are easier to live with, indeed, people who will be all out and out for the Lord.
I believe that the greatest besetting sin of many Western Christians today is the sin of apathy and it is one we all feel drawn towards at some time or another. This is the way Dorothy L Sayers caustically describes it as ‘‘the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing to die for.” That sounds Laodicean to me, doesn’t it to you? Would it not be a tragedy if we were to drift through our Christian lives, then die and find ourselves where John finds himself here only to put our heads in our hands, berating ourselves saying, ‘I chose apathy over this? I chose to put my Christian life into neutral when all this was waiting for me? What a waste.’ But by giving us this resplendent vision, God is giving us an opportunity today to mend our ways if that is the direction in which we are heading, to discover strength if we find our walk with Jesus tiring- by lifting our eyes to the heavenly throne, to the beauty and love which pulsates from one end of heaven to the other and a God who says, ‘All this is yours and you are mine.’
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