Our God Reigns - Revelation 4
You see, it's all 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 you are small and so you are reminded of God. And over the next few weeks we are going to be finding ourselves in a part of Scripture - the Book of Revelation - which is almost entirely concerned with perspective, that is seeing things from Gods perspective, which of course will be the truest and best perspective of all because God sees and knows everything. And when we begin to do that, the practical effect it has upon the way we view say prayer, or evangelism or suffering, or possessions is radically altered. So let us go with the apostle John on a journey, a journey not up a stairway to heaven, but through a doorway into heaven and there we see nothing less than a vision of God in all his majestic power enthroned at the very centre of the universe.
Look at v 2 of chapter 4 (read to 3). The first thing John sees in heaven is the centrality of God. As John writes this, many of his readers are undergoing persecution or at least face the threat of persecution by the ruling Roman authorities - being burnt at the stake, thrown to the lions, tied between two wild horses and then torn apart - thats what happened. But you see, God through John will not let them forget that behind such thrones are other thrones until eventually there is the throne standing in heaven. From the perspective of Johns congregations - in the valley - the local magistrates were a terror, the provincial rulers were awesome, the Emperor supreme and unbelievably cruel. Now how do you handle that? How do you live in the Yemen like the Levetts not knowing whether that the knock on the door is from the secret police coming to drag you away? How can you face a new century with so many uncertainties in the world? Well, you do so by adopting the perspective of the Book of Revelation, viz that there is only one throne that counts and the one who rules from that throne is almighty, all knowing and all love.
Now what a breathtaking description we have of the one who occupies that exalted throne. Jasper is white and like a diamond, carnelian red, like a ruby, emerald is 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 or the rings which encircle the planet Saturn. But the point is this: taken together their effect is to evoke a picture of entrancing beauty. That the most mesmerising, heart winning, mind engrossing scene in the entire universe is God seated upon his throne. I guess the nearest we can get to experiencing this is seeing the crown jewels in the Tower of London. Have you ever been there? As you enter this large well lit room, right in the centre is the most wonderful display case, which is simply a visual feast. Crowns and orbs and swords, made of gold and silver in which are set the most amazing stones - diamonds and rubies and emeralds, some as large as your fist, with the light refracting through these stones casting up a perfect kaleidoscope And you cant drag your eyes away - you are simply enchanted by their brilliance. And you find that when you move your head slightly the pattern of light changes, then you move your head a few degrees more and it changes again, its as if there is life in the light, causing the diamonds not only to sparkle but to dance. And when you come out of the exhibition at the end. You dont think. Eh there is lots of money in there! Your mind is left racing at the indescribable beauty you have just witnessed. Well, that is Johns experience here. In fact if you tried to draw a picture of what John describes you simply couldn't do it, for these are not those kind of images - this is what is called apocalyptic, where different metaphors and symbols are used to create impressions of those things which are quite frankly beyond our experience. Tell me, how do you describe a God who is purer than the driven snow? Who is more magnificent than the most stunning sunset over the Alps? Who is more entrancing than the most glittering diamonds strewn on a velvet cloth? Who is more loving and compassionate than the ideal parent? Who is more powerful than all the forces of nature unleashed simultaneously? Well, you strain human language to the limit dont you? using symbols and metaphors. Especially with people like us whose eyes are darkened, who often cannot see beyond our next pay slip or the next meal. let alone think of eternity. Just how do you describe a God like this? Well, in some ways the most important thing about this passage is that God himself is not described at all. He is beyond taking a snapshot and saying Here he is - God. There is no possibility of image making from this description. John can only describe God in terms of his effects - he has the appearance of jasper and carnelian, a rainbow resembling emerald - do you see? Now our problem to be quite frank is that we have reduced God to pocket size proportions, we want a God whom we can handle, treat like a pet genie at our beck and call. isn't that right? But that is not the God of the Bible. He is not only a God beyond all praising he is a God beyond all comprehension, we can never domesticate him, though foolishly we try. Like Aslan he is not a tame lion and woe betide us when we try to make him so. This God is gloriously transcendent, of infinite majesty and beauty.
But secondly, John is captured by the holiness of God and this comes out in several ways. First by the way the divine throne is enhanced by spectacular heavenly beings - v4 (read). Now who are these elders and what do they represent? Well, 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. More importantly is the vision we get in chapter 7 where the throne is pictured again, but this time everything is laid out as a series of concentric rings. Right at the centre you have Gods 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 Gods throne the whole number of the people of God - 12 tribes of Israel in the OT and the 12 apostles in the New, added together make 24. So in other words, Gods people are never without supernatural aid. God never forgets them, his ministering spirits are available, ready to do Gods bidding.
So what are they doing in heaven? Well, they are part of the sustained image throughout the Book of Revelation which distances God from us. Supposing you came to see me at the vicarage. If my wife or one of my children dont 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 Queens presence. The higher we go in terms of a persons importance and dignity, the more difficult and complex it is to get into their presence isn't it? Now if that is so on a human level, how much more so is it with God, whose eyes are so pure that they cannot even look upon iniquity? God is wholly different to us, separate from us and you dont get into his presence all that easily - that is the point.
And this is emphasised even more with the next few images as we see in5 - 6a. (read)Three images. First 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 night sky is lit up. And when God met with his people at Sinai, this is what they saw and 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 unaided.
Then we have the seven lamps, a reflection of the seven fold spirit, which signifies the perfection of Gods spirit - seven being the perfect number - so His Spirit is perfect in wisdom, righteousness, power and so on. This underscores to us the fact that Gods presence is mediated to us by His Spirit but in such a way he still remains distant - he can meet us on earth while still remaining in heaven. And the sea of glass probably means the same thing - creating an insuperable barrier. How is John, who is watching all of this to get to the 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 a blinding storm which separates God, then concentric ranks of angels and even then he sees a God which can only be spoken of in terms of metaphor and simile.
My dear brothers and sisters: is this how you view God? Or is he pocket size? Unless we grasp how great God is, how holy God is, how utterly different God is to anything we can see or imagine, we shall never appreciate his grace, his extraordinary condescending love. Now the ordinary man or woman in the street thinks that God loves them - that is not news, that is assumed - of course God smiles on them, so they think, and he jolly well should, and if he doesn't show it, then all the worse for God. My friends that is not how our forefathers viewed things. With men like Martin Luther, it wasn't a question of does God love me? but how can he possibly accept me, he is holy I am a sinner. How can one get near a God like this without being burnt up in the process? - which is hell. That was the problem and it still is, if only people realised it. And of course, as we shall see next week, that is why the Gospel is the answer, for now there is someone who at last can bring God and man back together, someone who sits on the throne as God and man and that is the Lord Jesus, the Lion of Judah, the lamb that was slain, who died on the cross to wash away our sin and make us fit for Gods presence.. But if you reduce God, make him into nothing more than your pal, you will lose the surprise and wonder of the Gospel.
And so we come to the praise of God as we see in v 6 to the end, with the four living creatures orchestrating the praise of heaven (read to 8). Now often ancient thrones were made so they looked as if they rested on creatures, so King Solomon had lions 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 react swiftly. All these attributes find their perfection in God. So not only do these creatures enhance Gods throne and orchestrate praise to the one on that throne, but their symbolism suggests that Gods throne rests on royal decree - he alone as the wisdom to do what is perfectly right, he alone has the power to bring it about, he alone can and will 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 notice what they do - v 8b (read). 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 too as we see in v9 - 10 (read 11). In the first place God is praised simply because of who he is. He is holy - which is almost tantamount to saying God is God, the eternal one, who was, is and is to come. This is the God with whom we have to do, even as we meet this morning - so we should have reverence in our service. 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 a Christian. You say Why should I let God into my life? Well, that would be like a son or daughter saying to their parent, why should I let them into my life? he made you thats why. he has a right to be at the centre of your life.
Now we hear a lot today about the importance of worship, by which people mean praise. But do you see what the basis for praise is in heaven? Praise is the right response to God as he is. It does not add anything to God, as if without it God is going to lack something - how can he ? he is God. And notice how God centred these hymns are - Holy is the Lord You are worthy to receive glory honour and power. They all flow from a right understanding of God. Now what a contrast to many of our modern hymns. It is interesting to go through and see how many begin with I, its all about how we feel, how we can build a throne for God, as if we are doing God a big favour by praising him. But the great hymns always start with God, exalting his being, rejoicing in his grace, recognising he is on the mountain and we are in the valleys. You see we can only praise God aright, and love him aright, when we understand him aright - that is why teaching the Bible is so central to everything we do at St Johns for then, and only then will we get the right perspective.
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