I did all this in-depth work on the symbolism of Revelation for a Bible study, so thought it might as well be posted here rather than only be used once.
First, some background.
I know that Revelation is, for most people, a confusing jumble of images; a series of visions without a good plot line, mixed in with a vague idea that this is supposed to have something to do with the end of the world. And – if we’re honest – it generally doesn’t make a lot of sense, and we tend not to read it very much.
And I really need to start by saying that it is completely okay if you’ve never felt that Revelation made much sense. There is a very good reason for that, and it’s a completely normal reaction. And the very good reason is that Revelation, unlike most of the Bible, is written in a style which (as far as I know) is pretty much a dead art form. There’s nothing in that style being written today, and so we haven’t learnt to read or make sense of it.
Unlike the gospels, which are basically narratives, or the letters, which are – well, letters – usually following a line of argument and instruction which we can recognise, or the psalms, which are poetry – you see, all of these are styles of writing still in use, and of which we know how to make sense. But Revelation, like a couple of other bits of Scripture, is written in a style called “apocalyptic.” That’s a word which English has borrowed from Greek, and it literally means “unveiling,” or “uncovering.”
The idea behind this kind of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is the not the whole truth about reality. Behind all of life – says apocalyptic writing – is deeper truth and deeper meaning. This kind of writing is a little peek behind that veil – beyond the physical things we can see and touch – using symbols to let us into the deeper truths and meanings of life. Things are not as they seem!
This was a common genre in Jewish and Christian writings of a couple of centuries either side of Christ; often thought to have been developed as a response to oppression and persecution. There is a rich and complex common vocabulary of imagery and thought in many of these texts, drawn from Scriptural roots, the Roman Imperial cult, and everyday life (notice other apocalyptic bits in the Bible, eg. Mark 13, Luke 21, 1 Thessalonians 4; Book of Daniel; etc). These texts were crafted to be both obscure if they fell into the wrong hands, and a powerful source of encouragement when read as they were intended.
Revelation is thought to have been written sometime towards the end of the first century, in a context where Christians were suffering persecution from the Romans and rejection from the Jews. It sets out a strong vision of Christ’s person, presence and triumph, as encouragement to what were probably isolated, frightened, discouraged groups of believers. (This is about both present and future, described in chapter 1 as “what is, and what is to take place after this.” It’s a mistake to think of this as all being about the time of the end; the end is only relevant here insofar as it explains what is already happening. We are, according to this way of understanding things, already in the beginning of the end.
So, after that long preamble, what is being said in Revelation chapter 4? Here’s the text, followed by a quick point-by-point tour of the most agreed on and theologically significant images.
2At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3And the one seated there looks like jasper and cornelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. 5Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; 6and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.’
9And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
11 ‘You are worthy, 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.’
Verse 2: John sees a throne. A supreme power. A control centre for the universe. A locus of authority. And a person on the throne; power, control, authority are not up for grabs; there’s someone looking after people, events, things. Chaos, evil and death are not running the show, even when it feels otherwise to us. Notice that as the description unfolds, everything is located and described in relation to the throne: around the throne, on each side of the throne, from the throne, in front of the throne, before the throne; the throne is the reference point for everything else, including and most especially all true worship. A physicist might sum this up by saying that the throne is point 0, 0, 0, 0 of existence.
The universe is not undirected, meaningless or out of control. It has someone in the driver’s seat. The challenge: do we trust him? Do we ignore him? Do we oppose him?
Verse 3: The one on the throne looks like jasper and cornelian. Gemstones. Beauty, majesty, radiance are suggested. God is altogether lovely, even if John doesn’t have the language to convey that with precision.
Around the throne is a rainbow, a reminder of God’s promise to never again destroy the earth by flood. In effect, this is saying that God is encompassed in mercy and faithfulness; despite its awesomeness, this is a safe place, even for us.
Verse 4: John sees 24 elders, who represent the 12 patriarchs of Israel, and Christ’s 12 apostles. That they are united in worship here emphasizes a continuity and unity of worship between Judaism and Christianity. And they are seated on thrones; these are centers of power and authority also, but delegated from and arranged around the central throne. God’s sovereignty is exercised in and through his people on earth. They are dressed in white robes; elsewhere in Revelation we are told that these are the people who overcome evil, those whom Christ has saved and who are to enjoy eternity under his reign. And in golden crowns, which represent life in and with the lamb.
Verse 5: From the throne come lightning and thunder: this is not a passive, quiescent God; but lightning and thunder announce his ongoing (awesome, powerful) activity in the world. This is a presage of judgement, and yet, it is a judgement which purifies and heals. Before the throne are seven flaming torches, which symbolize the purifying and healing consequences of being in God’s presence, and the illumination and revelation we receive. Seven is the number of completeness; this is a way of referring to the Holy Spirit in the completeness of His attributes. Seven says that the Spirit of God is completely present, completely available, completely engaged in this life at the deepest level of reality.
Verse 6: In front of the throne is a sea of glass/crystal. Normally, in Jewish thought, the sea represents chaos and evil, a is a way of signifying threat. But here is a sea not chaotic or evil, but smooth, still, flat. It is an image of tranquility, a contrast with how we often experience the ups and downs of life, which reminds us that beneath those experiences there is a deep and abiding stability and peace. Chaos will not win. Before the throne, chaos is subdued and stilled. (And in fact, later in Revelation, when John has a vision of the new creation, there is no longer any sea at all).
Around the throne are living creatures full of eyes. While there’s a lot more to say about the living creatures, the eyes themselves seem to be a symbol of God’s omniscience.
Verse 7: There is a long standing traditional association between the four living creatures around the throne, and the authors of the four gospels. Whether that’s what John had in mind, given that at his time the books of the Bible hadn’t been codified and he may not even have known all of the gospels as we now have them, I am not so sure. It seems likely that that is a later application of the imagery.
There is, however, rabbinic use of this imagery which can shed some light on what John might have meant; the rabbis of his era taught that “There are four mighty creatures. The mightiest among birds is the eagle, the mightiest among domestic animals is the ox, the mightiest among the wild animals is the lion, the mightiest of them all is man; and God has taken all these and secured them to his throne.” So the four creatures represent all of life in creation, made by God, for God, and worshipping him as their creator.
However, what the four creatures, with their difference in form and yet unity of worship, do seem to represent is something about the universality of the gospel message and of the worship which is (should be) offered to God, so the later connection to the gospel authors seems not inappropriate.
Verse 8: Holiness as the essential, fundamental attribute of God. Holy meaning absolutely pure, completely other than and transcendent of all of creation. Here John is picking up imagery and words from Isaiah 6, “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’ “
This triple acclamation of God as holy has become incorporated into the Eucharistic liturgies of many Christian traditions. Revelation talks about creatures in heaven singing without ceasing, “Holy, holy, holy…” and the liturgy puts us in that vision when it says, “Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name, for ever praising you and saying: Holy, holy, holy…” We imply that we participate in the worship of heaven, in the deepest level of reality, the one which determines everything else. We make an extraordinarily high claim for what we do in worship. That means that when we begin our worship services, we are entering into worship which is already in progress. It does not begin and end with us. Rather we step into and out of deliberate and conscious participation in this heavenly constant.
Further, God is acclaimed as Almighty. God is not ruled; he rules. He is not a victim of circumstance or manipulation. “Who was and is and is to come.” This reality is unchanging; through all of life’s changes and chances, this reality is a central, stable, unmoving truth.
Verse 10: The elders cast their crowns before the throne. Remember that we already know that the crown is a symbol for a redeemed life; so this is a setting aside of all claim to authority or glory in their own right; rather they take all they are and have and lay it down before the throne, since all of life flows from and revolves around the throne of the creator. We are invited to see this as a representative action, showing what the worshipful action of all believers is/should be, and pointing up the evil of the failure to do so on the part of “the world.”
Verse 11: “You have created all things, and by your will they have their being.” Everything, even the powers of evil we experience (wherever we locate them), is contingent on God. Evil’s being is constrained by God; it can’t pass the boundaries or limits placed by the God who creates all. Also, God the creator can create again. The next time God speaks in Revelation is towards the end, where he tells us that “Look! I make all things new.” There is hope for a new reality, a new experience, because the one on the throne is the creator of all.
Phew! There you have it… stay tuned, I expect to post much the same sort of commentary on chapter 5 next week.