4: Revelation 4 & 5: John’s description of Heaven
Imagine trying to describe something that can’t be described. Heaven must surely be beyond our power of description, and beyond the author, John’s.
Comic artists render action with symbols familiar to all our children – star-shapes with “POW” and “BAM” written on them imply somebody being hit. “BANG” is usually a gun. Light-bulbs drawn over heads imply inspiration and ideas.
The symbols John used in his writing would have been just as familiar to early readers, and to readers intimately acquainted with the Old Testament. When we read without the same understanding of the symbols, we might expect to struggle to understand – just as an alien might struggle to understand our children’s comic books.
John has just written Jesus’ letters to the churches. The rest of the book might be expected to give an explanation of what the warnings and promises were all about.
The story starts with images very reminiscent of the temple in Jerusalem, and symbols reminiscent of heaven.
4.1 After this: John has written the letters, as instructed: What happens next?
4:1 Come up here: John saw Jesus standing by the lamp stand outside the Holy of Holies. Now John is invited to come up, to climb the steps up to the Holy of Holies, as if he is entering heaven.
4:1 what must take place after this: Will John be shown the future, or just the next part of the vision?
4.3 jasper and carnelian: These red and yellow stones were traditionally worn on the priest’s garments (Exodus 28:17-20) and God is in charge of the priests.
4.3 rainbow: The rainbow would bring to mind God’s covenant after the flood (Genesis 9:13), and also Ezekiel’s vision of God (Ezekiel 1:28). This “throne” then sounds like the throne of God.
4:4 twenty-four elders: Levite tradition has 24 groups of priests, representing the whole priesthood. Also, there are12 tribes and 12 apostles, so the elders around God’s throne might represent the unity of the Old and New Covenants.
4:4 dressed in white, crowns of gold: White garments and crowns refer back to Rev 3:4,11, and might remind readers of Jesus’ parable where the wedding guests were given white robes (Matthew 22:12).
4:5 lightening, rumbling and peals of thunder: All these were found on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:18) reinforcing the idea that John is entering heaven.
4:6 sea of glass: The purification bowl outside the Holy of Holies (Exodus 38:8, 1 Kings 7:23) was often called “the sea”. Here it imagined filled with completely pure water.
4:6 four living creatures: These would remind readers of the creatures in Ezekiel 1:5, with the number four representing the world.
4:7 lion, ox, man, eagle: See Ezekiel 1:10. The imagery is very similar.
4:7 six wings: The seraphim have six wings – two sets of three (for trust and God) (Isaiah 6:2)
5.1 scroll: A scroll would be used during Temple worship and would carry the words of God.
5.1 seven seals: Seven is a symbolic number – seven seals might imply that God has planned for the scroll to be sealed, or that it is perfectly sealed.
5:5 lion, Judah, root, David: These symbols were frequently used in the Old Testament, though not in the same way, to refer to the Messiah. Only the Messiah is worthy to unseal the scroll – only the Messiah is worthy to speak its message.
5:6 lamb: See Isaiah 53:9, John 1:29. Jesus is the Lamb of God.
5:6 seven horns: Horns are symbolic of authority and government. The lamb having seven horns would imply it’s authority to completely, perfectly rule according to God’s plan. Daniel 7:24 describes, by contrast, 10 horns representing the limited rule of man.
5:8 harp, golden bowls full of incense: The presence of these items would imply Temple worship is about to take place. The world (four creatures) and church (twenty-four elders) are ready to play their part.
5:11 ten thousands times ten thousand angels: A thousand often implies something about God’s relationship to man – 10 for man to the power 3 for God. Angels themselves are known as God’s messengers in the Bible, and also as the guardians of God’s land and people. The number might serve as a reminder that they exist for man and God.
As the angels gather and worship songs are sung, the scene is set for the remainder of the Book of Revelation to follow some sort of worship ceremony.
The Book can be read as following a fairly traditional worship service:
The scroll is brought into the place of worship 7 seals (6:1-8:1)
The trumpets sound the call to worship. 7 trumpets (8:2-11:19)
The priest teaches from the scroll. 7 signs (12:1-15:8)
Incense is burned on the altar 7 bowls (15:5-16:21)
The responses are given 7 descriptions of judgment (17:1-19:10)
The people rejoice 7 descriptions of victory (19:11-20:15)
And the Holy of Holies stands open 7 visions of the City of God (21:1-22:5)
Seven sevens – maybe leading to Jubilee?
In Jewish tradition, every seventh day was special to God.
Every seventh year was a year of Sabbath rest for the land.
And the seventh seventh year (i.e. the fiftieth year, following from the forty-ninth) was the year of Jubilee. In this year slaves were set free and property reverted to its owners (as a reminder that the land in fact belonged to God) (Leviticus 25).
Reading the book of Revelation with this symbolism in mind gives a beautiful image of all created things reverting to their perfect true owner, God, at the end of time—both a promise for the future, and a hope for the present, rather than a threat of dire events about to overwhelm us.