Exposition of Revelation: Revelation 4:1–5

Revelation 4:1–5
After these things I looked, and there was a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet said: “Come up here so that I can show you what must happen after these things.” 2 Immediately I was in the Spirit, and a throne was standing in heaven with someone seated on it! 3 And the one seated on it was like jasper and carnelian in appearance, and a rainbow looking like it was made of emerald encircled the throne. 4 In a circle around the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on those thrones were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white clothing and had golden crowns on their heads. 5 From the throne came out flashes of lightning and roaring and crashes of thunder. Seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God, were burning in front of the throne.
 (NET Bible)

The One on the throne

Many people want to believe they are in control of their own affairs. To follow that idea to its logical conclusion, they must assume either that there is no God in heaven or that they will somehow resist whatever god may exist.

Those ideas might sound plausible except for one thing: someone has already ascended to heaven and looked!

Revelation chapters 4–5 form a single unit. Grant Osborne has the right idea when he says: “The unifying theme of these chapters is certainly the ‘throne.’. . . The throne room scene [chapter 4] is a kaleidoscope of OT images, with no single one dominant.”[1] Of course, it is logical that there would be common elements to these visions of God on his throne.

In relation to the frequent use of throne, Greg Beale explains: “Although God’s realm is separated from the earthly, he is nevertheless in control over earth’s affairs. Regardless of how rampant evil seems to run and to cause God’s people to suffer, they can know that his hand superintends everything for their good and his glory.”[2]

In a book such as Revelation, time markers are very important to the literary structure. We immediately encounter two such markers in 4:1. The first such signaling device is the clause “after these things I looked” (4:1; 7:1, 9; 15:5; 18:1). In a book filled with visions, the act of looking introduces new visions.

The second marker in 4:1 is the phrase “after these things,” which serves to place blocks of material in a relative chronological sequence. (See 1:19; 4:1 [twice]; 7:9; 9:12; 15:5; 18:1; 19:1; 20.3.). “After these things” occurs at the beginning and end of 4:1. The final use of the phrase at the end of 4:1 strongly implies that the further visions in chapters 4–22 cover events which occur after what has already been revealed in chapters 1–3.

The first thing John sees is an open door in heaven (4:1). A voice summons him to ascend and be shown “what must happen after these things” (4:1b, emphasis added). The word must translates the Greek dei, a verb expressing necessity. Prophecy is not about maybe but about certainty!

John’s first impression of heaven is a throne and “someone sitting on it” (4:2, NLT). The Greek form expressing “someone sitting” normally means continuous action in present time; Someone is sitting on this the heavenly throne — by design not happenstance — because he rules!

Note carefully that the great throne stands at the center of the assembled company, who form a circle about it (4:4). Beale rightly says: “All heavenly beings find significance only in their various placements around the central throne. And all earth’s inhabitants are appraised on the basis of their attitude to God’s claim to rule over them from this heavenly throne (cf. 6:16–17; 20:11–12).”[3] It is heaven that defines our measure; we are not the center of things!

Who are the 24 elders (4:4)? Some say angels and others say men; still others suggest that the elders are angels who represent both OT and NT believers. The last option appears the most likely, but the answer really does not matter in this context. What does matter is that the elders have seats of honor, service and worship in relation to the One on the throne. We should not get distracted interpreting details of the vision.

In support of the lesser importance of the elders, 4:5 immediately returns attention to the central throne. The “flashes of lightning and roaring and crashes of thunder” also occur in 8:5, 11:19, and 16:18; all are contexts of judgment. The appearance of these intense elements in 4:5 informs us that God’s throne is their source; when judgment later falls, it comes from the One on the throne! Osborne concludes: “The awesome God is the basis of both worship and judgment.”[4] That we are expressly told about the presence of the Spirit of God before the throne (4:5) lets us know the Spirit has a central role in the judgment to come.

Heaven’s occupied throne

The central throne in heaven is not vacant! No one needs to put themselves forward as a candidate for it. And the One who sits on that throne has declared his firm intention to reward and to judge.

The prophet Isaiah said: “In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the sovereign master seated on a high, elevated throne. The hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs stood over him; each one had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and they used the remaining two to fly. 3 They called out to one another, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord who commands armies! His majestic splendor fills the entire earth!’” (Isa. 6:1–3). Sovereign! Master! Holy!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002) 220.

[2] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 320.

[3] Beale, Revelation, 320.

[4] Osborne, Revelation, 230.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!