God the Father of Revelation - Revelation 4
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~~God the Father of Revelation
After the unimaginable slaughter of the First World War and the beginning of the Irish War for Independence W. B. Yeats wrote a poem entitled ‘The Second Coming’ which began, ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.’ ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.’ And that appears to be an accurate description of our world. When there is no centre to hold things together- things simply fall apart. They fall apart in a country if there is no proper government. They fall apart in a family if there are no parents. They fall apart in an individual if there is no centre of meaning in their soul. Things fall apart.
That is certainly the way things appear to be. But here God gives his servant John a vision to show to his people and a world, if it were only willing to listen, that there is a centre which holds everything together. At the centre is a throne and the one who holds everything together- from the furthest stars in the outer galaxies, through to the smallest sparrow in the garden and most importantly of all, his tiny, persecuted people-the church is seated on that throne ruling. And we see this in all its dazzling splendour and earth shaking power in Revelation chapter 4.
The Book of Revelation refers to God’s throne nearly forty times including twelve times in this chapter which underscores its vital importance. Furthermore the whole of creation finds its significance in being rightly oriented towards this throne. And you will notice that everything in this chapter is introduced in relation to the throne: the seven fold Spirit and the sea of glass are before the throne. A rainbow, twenty four thrones and the elders are positioned around the throne. The four living creatures are in the midst of the throne. And flashes of lightening, rumblings and peals of thunder emanate from the throne.
However, today thrones don’t have much of a place in people’s lives. You may see a throne in a museum from some ancient culture, and where they are occupied, in our country for example, they only have a ceremonial role- the Queen bestowing a knighthood and the like. But once things were very different. Once, thrones radiated meaning. They symbolised the sovereign’s authority and will. It was from thrones that societies were shaped and declarations made. Thrones stood for power, wealth, sometimes justice and always entitlement to rule. This is the image we are being presented with here, but purged of course, of all its human imperfections- the rule of God.
Last week we saw that the most effective antidote for the Christian to resist the pressures to believe the lies around us is to get a proper grip on reality- and this is what the book of Revelation gives us. Its name means ‘lifting the veil’ so we can have access to the unseen, ultimate reality which is God on his throne. You know, people sometimes chide Christians to start ‘living in the real world’, by which they mean a world which excludes God and the spiritual realm. But in fact the reverse is true. Christians with an open Bible are the only ones who are living in the real world because they have had their minds and hearts opened to a greater reality having encountered the one who is the source and goal of everything- God himself.
There are three things which we are presented with as, with John, we enter the throne room of heaven.
First, the supremacy of God-v2, ‘At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne.’ Notice that God is never described as such, because apart from the fact that God is spirit and can’t be seen, he is infinite and so indescribable. To be sure there is someone seated on the throne- ruling, but he can’t easily be captured by words- he has the appearance of jasper and the appearance of ruby and so on. God himself is never directly described; it is always in terms of the ‘likeness of’ never this is what he is.
But the description we are given of the one who occupies this throne is nonetheless breathtaking, which is precisely the effect it is intended to have. Just look at it. The One seated there is like jasper which is white and sparkles like a diamond; and ruby or carnelian, which is fiery red, and emerald - a glittering green. The rainbow could mean the vertical multi-coloured bow we see in the sky after rain or something horizontal, more like a halo or the rings of Saturn. And of course the rainbow takes us back to the sign given by God after the flood, a sign that he is a faithful and merciful God. Taken together the effect is to evoke an image of pure, entrancing beauty. The nearest thing to this I have experienced is when Heather and I went to Norway and saw the Northern Lights. What happens is that as you slowly make your journey towards the cold wilderness beneath a black sky studded with stars, and very faintly at first you see a green glow dancing on the horizon, which then begins to gleam with greater intensity and the dance of the lights becomes all the more elaborate. Then you look up to see what appears like a giant green and yellow curtain shimmering over the mountains and then suddenly the configuration changes into a green and yellow crown with flecks of red forming directly overhead- and this display just goes on and on and you never tire of it. Your mind is left racing with the mesmerising beauty of it all. I remember saying to Heather, this must be what it will be like when we enter into heaven. Well, John’s experience is something like that but heightened to an entirely different level of spiritual and emotional intensity as God reigns supreme.
Secondly there is the holiness of God. Interestingly enough, the Bible never defines holiness as such, especially when applied to God, rather it is a term which in many respects signifies the otherness of God, how he is so utterly and wholly unlike us in his divine attributes. It is a term often associated with the radiance of God which far outshines anything we could imagine. It is sometimes linked to glory- the infinite weight of God, which outweighs the entire cosmos. And this utter transcendent otherness of God – his holiness- is conveyed to us here 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 they appear to be some form of higher angelic order wearing crowns indicating rule, and dressed in white which is the colour of victory. And their number- 24- has representative function- so it appears these angels represent before the throne of God the entire people of God-the 12 tribes of Israel in the OT and the 12 apostles in the New. Do you know what that means? It means that God’s people are never without supernatural representatives in heaven, so they are never out of God’s mind 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.
The crowns and the clothing symbolise kingship and victory. And the suffering Christians of Roman Asia- and us- are to see themselves and their martyred companions in this light. They may have suffered on earth but they reign in heaven, they may have been despised here but are honoured there; and believers in John’s churches can look from a Roman prison to the throne room of God and with the eyes of faith see this. In short what we have here is the Church in heaven.
One writer puts it like this: ‘The church is pictured in angelic guise to remind its members that already a dimension of their existence is heavenly, that their real home is not with the unbelieving “earth-dwellers”, and that they have heavenly help and protection in their struggle to obtain their reward and not be conformed to their pagan environment.’ He goes on, ‘One of the purposes of the church meeting on earth in its weekly gatherings…is to be reminded of its heavenly existence and identity by modelling its worship and liturgy on the angels’ and the heavenly church’s worship of the exalted lamb, as vividly portrayed in chapters 4-5.’
One of the reasons for us meeting as church like this each week is so we can have this kind of perspective renewed and strengthened. We are meant to see our lives and our careers, our years of strength and our days of weakness in this light and with this significance. This is where we shall be one day, this is where we belong, this is our true home-and even now the ground of the throne-room stretches to our feet as we worship.
But the awe inspiring holiness of God is emphasised even more forcefully by the few next images, ‘From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the sevenfold Spirit of God. Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.’
Here we have three images.
First, there is the lightening and the thunder. Let me ask: in the days before the nuclear bomb what would have been the most powerful, destructive force the ancients could have referred to? The answer: 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 where, when thunder erupts, the whole ground shakes, and when lightning strikes the whole sky is lit up. 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 -that is what encircles the throne of God. So to think that one can blithely walk into God’s presence would be as suicidal as walking into an atomic blast -it can’t be done.
Secondly, there are the seven lamps- a reflection of the seven fold spirit, which signifies the perfection of God’s Holy Spirit, perfect in wisdom, in righteousness, in power and so on. This brings home to us the truth that the way God’s presence can be mediated to us is 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. Do you see?
Thirdly there is the ‘sea of glass, clear as crystal’. What is the significance of that?
At least two things
First, it appears to create an insuperable barrier. So here’s the question: how is John, who is watching all of this, going to get close 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 hides God, then concentric ranks of angels and archangels and even then he sees a God in such a way that can only be spoken of in terms of metaphor and simile! How do you approach a God like this so utterly, utterly holy? Well, you need some sort of protection, a kind of go-between, someone who will be able bridge the gap and introduced us to God as Father without it marking our demise. We shall see who that someone is next week in chapter 5.
Secondly, we are to note that it is a sea of glass, clear as crystal. Why is that important? In the Bible the sea often depicts chaos, rebellion and turmoil. It is dark and unruly, churning up sediment, delivering debris, detritus and even dead bodies onto the shores. This depicts the effects of Satan’s works in the world, as we see in chapter 13, as well as being picture of the world organised in opposition to God. That is why on earth things seem so uncertain and unpredictable- an economic meltdown here, a war over there and we are tossed about and disorientated by it all. But for God and from where he rules- there is no such sea, a sea of rebellion and uncertainty. The sea that exists before him is as smooth and as solid as a sheet of glass. It is also as clear as crystal- he can see right through it- so there is nothing dark which could hide sinister forces ready to jump out and do damage. And it is a great comfort for us to know that. And one day the whole of creation will be like that, when his kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as in heaven. God is completely composed and completely in control. The question is: do you believe that?
Finally we come to the worship of God vv 6b-11.
‘In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 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. 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. For example 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, the power to bring it about and to do so swiftly -at the right time and in the right way for the sake of his people.
Now, in the original the emphasis is not so much on who these creatures are but on what they are doing which is worship -‘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 v9-11.
So why is God to be worshipped like this?
In the first instance simply because of who he is. He is holy-which is tantamount to saying God is God. But also because he is our Creator- ‘you created all things, by your will they were created and have their being.’ Maybe you are here this morning and you are thinking, ‘Why should I let God into my life? What’s it got to do with him, can’t I have some private space of my own?’ Well that that would be like a child saying to his parents, ‘Why should I let you into my life?’ He has the right to be at the centre of your life. What is more, 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- ‘the centre will not hold.’ But when this God is at the centre then everything changes - we discover what we were made for and who we were made for- to know and worship God. And worship isn’t something airy fairy. I like 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.’
In other words, we become better people- more contented people, people who are easier to live with, people with a purpose because we have come to know the one who is of supreme worth. In fact we start to do on earth what the 24 elders do in heaven, we lay our crowns- symbols of our rule- before God’s throne- joyfully acknowledging his saving, loving, soul satisfying rule and we are not to settle for anything less
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