The Issues: What Is Christ Doing in Heaven?
With John, let’s go to the third window.
We see a door open in heaven. Then, for the second time, we hear that voice that we heard in the first vision [1:10], the voice that sounded like a trumpet. It invites, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” John accepts the invitation and enters heaven. What a view! What a drama! In a throne room.
On the throne is someone who has the appearance of jasper and carnelian. Above the throne is a rainbow, resembling an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them are twenty-four elders dressed in white and with gold wreathed crowns on their heads.2 From the throne lightning flashes and there are rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne are seven lamps blazing. “These are the seven spirits of God.” Also before the throne there is what looks like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. In the center, around the throne, are four living creatures, covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature is like a lion, the second like an ox, the third has a face like a man, the fourth is like a flying eagle.
Is this real?
The identification of the lamps with the spirits of God indicates symbolism. Our imagination is at work. In our minds we see what John sees, but we are told that not everything we are looking at is real. Some things are only representations.
Further, some of these things that John is seeing in his vision are reminders of things with which those early Christians were more familiar. For example, in front of the entrance to Solomon’s Temple there was a huge bowl ten cubits from rim to rim, five cubits high and thirty cubits in diameter. This was called the Sea (1 Kings 7:23-26; 2 Chronicles 4:2-5). When the earlier temporary tabernacle was constructed during the Israelite migration, Moses had been instructed to make a “laver,” a bronze basin, and locate it in the equivalent position (Exodus 30:18-21). The later “Sea” was its replacement. Now we are looking at something that looks like a sea of glass, like crystal!
Besides, Moses had been instructed to “make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman (Exodus 26:31)” and hang it between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, thus veiling the Ark of the Covenant in the original Tabernacle. Years later, in the same location in the much grander Solomon’s Temple, there were both a curtain and doors, all with depictions of cherubim on them (1 Kings 6:31-32; 2 Chronicles 3:14).
Cherubim3 were mythological/imaginary winged creatures, sometimes like an animal, sometimes like a human being. They appeared as guardians in ancient middle eastern art and statuary. However, John is not visioning a temple built by Solomon or a tabernacle built by Moses. Here, in vision, he sees God, seated on His throne, not veiled by a tapestried curtain or behind closed doors in the presence of guardian statues but of four winged, living creatures.
Assyrian guardian statue
One looks like a lion, another like an ox, another with a face like a man, and one like a flying eagle. Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”
John wrote that whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to the One on the throne, the twenty-four elders fall down before him and worship him. They lay their wreathed crowns before the throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” Giving all glory to God, they take none to themselves.
This is a drama
Because of what happened next in the vision, we can tell that John is not watching the ongoing activity of heaven. He is watching an unfolding story. All is well, until it is discovered that no one is qualified to open a certain scroll that has been sealed with seven seals.
He takes a closer look and he sees that in the “right hand of him who sat on the throne [there was] a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals.”
A mighty angel then shouted, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. John weeps and weeps because no one is found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.
One of the 24 elders says to him, “Don’t weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
As if he had not seen it before, now he notices not a Lion but a Lamb, appearing as if it had been slaughtered, standing in the center of the throne. Unlike other lambs, this one has seven horns and seven eyes, “which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.”4 The Lamb approaches the one who is sitting on the throne and takes the scroll from him.
At this point, the four creatures and the twenty-four elders fall down before the Lamb. They now sing a song that praises the Lamb, a song that recognizes that he is worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals. Why? Because he has been slain, and with his blood has purchased men for God from every tribe, language, people and nation. They sing, “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”
Millions of angels encircling the throne join in with, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” They are then joined by every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea singing praise to the Lamb and to the one seated on the throne.
That scroll and the Lamb
Not a minor detail, considering that (1) the scroll must be important, (2) opening the book must be important, and (3) only one person qualifies to open it. If no one qualifies, the scroll remains closed.
Jeremiah 32:1-15 could well indicate that this scroll might be the title-deeds to this earth.
While Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylon army, the prophet Jeremiah was in prison under the orders of Zedekiah, king of Judah. Jeremiah was quizzed by the king as to why he had prophesied that Jerusalem would be conquered, and Zedekiah himself captured.
That was the bad news. Jeremiah had good news to follow.
Because God had told him that “houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land” he had shown his confidence in God by buying a field at Anathoth with the intention of regaining it during the future restoration after the exile. After all, the Lord had told him that the exile would be temporary (Jeremiah 25:11-12;29:10). So, when it was all over, Jeremiah could produce the title deeds and reclaim his estate.5 The right of redemption was his.
With this Biblical background it is fairly safe to assume that we are looking at this picture:
- The world is threatened from within.
- To all appearances this world will never get back into the hands of the original owner.
- Yet, restoration will be realized, through Jesus!
The world? More so the people of the planet, people from every tribe, language, people and nation.
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1:18-19, NIV).
And they sing a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation … (Revelation 5:9, KJV)
As the Lamb breaks each of the first four seals, one of the cherubim calls in a voice like thunder, “Come,” in keen anticipation of the coming of the Rider on the white horse of chapter 19.
While some manuscripts read “Come, and see,” some do not.6 Besides, John has already responded to the call to come and see (4:1), and he is already watching. The cry, “Come!” is only heard with the opening of the first four seals, and it is made by the cherubim who never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come (4:8).”
“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (Revelation 22:20).”
Well, you would think that, as the seals to the document are being broken, things will be looking good. Do we see “heaven standing open and a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True (19:11)?” No! There is great disappointment as other horses and riders appear: conquering, slaughtering, depriving, causing hunger, famine, disease and death.
With the opening of the first seal, there, before John, is, yes, a white horse! Its rider holds a bow, and he is given a crown (Greek: stephanos), and he rides out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
What does this moving picture mean?
Some have thought that this horse and its rider represent the early Church, or even Christ Himself. I doubt it. Why?
Earlier, when Jesus was on earth he had issued some warnings in private discussions with his disciples.7 They asked, “Tell us … what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
“Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. … For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect — if that were possible (Matthew 24:4-24).”
What John is now seeing is a moving picture of what Jesus had told his disciples.
Looks are deceiving. In line with the future outlined by Jesus, this rider might look like the Christ but the vision is really intended to impress the viewer with a picture of a false christ. He is armed with a bow, a weapon that “would most naturally be connected with the enemy of God’s people (Ezekiel 39:3; cf. Revelation 20:7-8).” 8
It is followed, graphically but not necessarily chronologically, by horses and horsemen representing war, famine, pestilence and persecution of the saints.
When the Lamb opens the second seal and the second creature has said, “Come!” another horse came out; a fiery red one. Its rider iss given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him is given a large sword.9
With the opening of the third seal the third creature says, “Come!” In front of John is a black horse! Its rider is holding a pair of scales in his hand. A voice from among the four living creatures says, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
When the Lamb opens the fourth seal the fourth living creature says, “Come!” And there, in front of John, is a pale horse! Its rider is named Death, and Hades follows close behind him. They are given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword,10 famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
Now we are reminded of injustice. The Lamb opens the fifth seal and John sees under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. Souls under the altar? In the Mosaic sanctuary service, the shedding of blood on the altar made atonement for the sinner (Leviticus 17:11) Atonement has been made for these people. Although dead, they are secure. They are depicted as if they have been “crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20).”
The unfulfilled cry of “Come” uttered by the four heavenly creatures now induces a cry of “How long?” from the righteous dead.
The cry of “How long?” is not a new one.
- My soul is in anguish. How long? O LORD, how long (Psalm 6:3)?
- How long? O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (2) How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?
- How long will my enemy triumph over me (Psalm 13:1-2)?
- How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save (Habakkuk 1:2)?
“How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” cry the righteous dead. In response to their cry they are given white robes and told to wait — wait until the living righteous suffer the same as the Savior did so long ago.
The universe, looking down, will see the fruitage of good and evil on a scale never before possible. And then its all-wise, all-good Sovereign will decree, “It is finished.” Then, when all unfallen worlds will unite with the angels saying, “ … Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. … your righteous acts have been revealed (Revelation 15:3-4).” Christ shall come. The “How long, O Lord?” will have been answered, and will never be asked again.11
Then the Lamb vents his anger, destroying these destroyers and saving His servants.
With the opening of the sixth seal there is a great earthquake, the sun turns black, the moon turns red, and the stars in the sky fall to earth. The sky recedes. Mountains and islands are removed. Rulers and great men, military commanders, the rich and powerful, slaves and freemen hide in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. Then follows the cry of the unsaved, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come. and who can stand?”
Not a portrayal of Christ’s second coming per se but a portrayal of the reaction of the unrepentant to His imminent arrival. In this vision, the sky has parted and the people on earth see the One who “sits on the throne (Revelation 4:2-3).” The arrival of the Savior is not actually pictured until 19:11-21 (if not earlier in 14:14-20). Those who have rejected Jesus, the Christ, now sense that they are in the presence of One mightier than they, One to whom they should have surrendered instead of resisting.
The great day of God’s wrath has come, and who can stand? Good question. Not them — that’s for sure!
The righteous dead have been reassured. Can the same be said for the righteous living?
People are sealed
Four angels come into view not in heaven but on earth. Restraining the four destructive winds, they are acting on the orders of another angel who, ascending from the east, has the seal of the living God. He has called out to them, “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”
So, there is a reason for the delay in the return of Christ!
The throne-room scene was reminiscent of the Jewish Temple. The concept of sealing, approving and securing,12 which follows, is also expressed in Jewish terms.
The number of those who were sealed is said to be 144,000 …
So, that’s what John hears. However, look at what he sees: a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.
They are from all the tribes of Israel, i.e. 12,000 from each of the named tribes: Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin. Compare this with the list of Jacob’s sons and you will find a discrepancy. Dan is unlisted and is replaced with Manasseh who was a grandson of Jacob! The traditional list for the allocation of tribal territory includes Ephraim, the brother of Manasseh but excludes Levi. (The Levites were priests and temple workers.) This unusual listing and the New Testament concept of “Israel” as the church,13 indicates that the Church is intended here. There is room for everyone. Not one group is privileged over another.
Notice where they are: standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They are wearing white robes, holding palm branches. And they cry out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
How different from the cry we heard from the saints that were under the altar!
The millions of angels standing around the throne now fall on their faces before the throne and worship God: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
Whereas before, the four living creatures had led in worship, now the sealed and saved lead.
And their future? Because they have survived the great tribulation and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, they are before the throne of God and are promised God’s eternal protection and the care of the Savior. Picture it. “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:17).”
The action has been so turbulent that when it is over everyone enjoys 30 minutes of utter silence. When the Lamb opens the seventh seal there is silence in heaven for about half an hour.
Today, do you tend to say, “How long?”
Do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness (2 Peter 3:8-10).
The reason for the delay: He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
The end will come. The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
In the meantime, the Holy Spirit is active. So, do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30).
In these chapters of Revelation (4:1-8:1) what attracts the attention of most are the horses and the horsemen. That is understandable. They dominate the scene with their color and the clatter of hooves. Their actions cause anxiety.
What is more important, but really has slipped our attention, is the sealing of the saints, the quiet work of the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the Gospel during the troublous times.
Which is more important, the unsealing of the scroll or the sealing of the servants of God?
Both are important. We have no control over Jesus and what He is doing, but we can decide our own destinies.
Are we cooperating with the Spirit or the horsemen? What is our influence?
Some things are sure.
- The heavenly beings want Jesus to come
- The saints who have preceded us have wanted Jesus to come
- Jesus will come
- Jesus has the title deeds in His hand
- The scroll will be opened
- When it is, all will have had their say: the heavenly beings, the righteous, and even the lost.
- When everything has been said and done, there will be nothing more to say! Regardless of the appearances — disappointment, deception, disasters, dread and delay — God will have His way. The followers of Jesus here on earth, one day will be ushered into his presence.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
1. Scripture quoted is taken from The Holy Bible. New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation, 1985).
2. Crowns (Greek: στεφανοι, stephanoi: plural of stephanos). A wreathed crown given to victors in public games or to people honored publicly for their distinguished service. At times they were made of laurel leaves, sometimes even made of gold.
3. Cherubim is the plural of the Hebrew word “cherub” pronounced, strictly, “k(h)erub.” (Gr. Χερουβ, plural: Χερουβιμ, LXX). See Horn, SDABDic, art, “Cherub.”
• Two golden cherubim were mounted on the lid of the Ark of the covenant in the tabernacle (Exodus 37:6-9). Two cherubim stood on the floor of the Most Holy Place in Solomon’s Temple, their combined wingspan reaching from wall to wall (1 Kings 6:23-29; 2 Chronicles 5:7-8).
• Ezekiel had seen similar beings, called “living creatures” in chapter 1 (Ezekiel 1:5-28), but the “cherubim” in chapters 9 and 10 (Ezekiel 9:3; 10) were in motion below the wheeled throne of God. These visions of Ezekiel and St. John, which are similar yet different, must then depict concepts, not things.
4. The lamps also were the seven spirits of God. Both these and the eyes are representations of the purpose and work of the Holy Spirit of God. Why seven? A number which indicates perfection. They can be contrasted with the activities of the three spirits of demons of Revelation 16:13-14.
5. And Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Behold, Hanameel the son of Shallum thine uncle shall come unto thee, saying, Buy thee my field that is in Anathoth: for the right of redemption is thine to buy it. So Hanameel mine uncle’s son came to me in the court of the prison according to the word of the LORD, and said unto me, Buy my field, I pray thee, that is in Anathoth, which is in the country of Benjamin: for the right of inheritance is thine, and the redemption is thine; buy it for thyself. Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD (Jeremiah 32:6-8, KJV).
6. Come and see. Textual evidence is divided [This phrase is used where textual evidence for or against a reading is indecisive] as to whether the words “and see” should be included. … The same division of evidence appears in vs. 3, 5,7. See Nichol, SDABC.
7. Luke 21, Mark 13, Matthew 24
8. a bow, for shooting arrows (Greek: τοξον, toxon). See Gaebelein, Frank E., ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: The Zondervan Corporation), Vol. 12, p. 473.
9. a large dagger (Greek: μαχαιρα, machaira)
10. a large broad sword (Greek: ρομφαια, romphaia)
11. Ford, Crisis! Vol. 2, 374-375
12. The Scriptures teach that God’s seal of ownership is the Holy Spirit and is effected by the Holy Spirit when a person believes the Gospel.
• “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).”
• “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession — to the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:13-14).”
- “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30).”
Notice that Paul had written to the Ephesians that a person is marked with the seal when he believes. “Having believed, you were marked.” So, here in Revelation 8, rather than being about a process of perfecting “the saints,” John envisions the result of believing the Gospel. Here “144,000” are sealed. Why? Consistent with previous Scriptures it is because they have believed the Gospel. When John records his next encounter with them he sees written on heir foreheads “[the Lamb’s] name and his [the Lamb’s] Father’s name.” Consider this: “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’” (Galatians 4:6) When you believe, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, see God as your Father and become a member of His family.
13. Romans 9:6 et al.; 11:26; Galatians 3:29; 6:16. Besides, the true Israelites are those who have the Father’s name written in their foreheads (Revelation 14:1).
Photo: The cast of an Assyrian winged bull, The Louvre, Paris (© 2010, Angus McPhee)
© 2010, Angus McPhee