God rules. Period. No matter how difficult things get for us, our faith teaches us that God is in charge right now. While we are preoccupied with events on earth, the universe’s center of power rests in heaven. Nothing can happen here without God’s knowledge and willingness to permit it. This connection between heaven and earth is a major theme of Revelation, and is the main topic of chs 4–5. We need these chapters to understand how God will address the challenges we will soon face.
One of the fascinating things about Rev 4–5 is the way that it adds New Testament ideas to a broadly conceived Old Testament foundation. In this post I can only briefly point to some of the allusions and references. But I hope that you will take some time to read and think about the deep biblical theology evident in these chapters.
The scene of Rev 4 is an example of a frequent Old Testament concept that scholars call God’s “divine council.” While many Christians think of the all-perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God as a solitary being, the Old Testament often portrays God as a king with a royal retinue. This is consistent with the human notion of a king; kings in history always have an array of counselors and attendants. Yes, Christian theology teaches that God does not need advisors. But humankind has always understood (or at least suspected) that not everyone in the king’s court is strictly needed. (Is it cynical to say that modern American Presidents have had more staff around than absolutely necessary?) The presence of a group of counselors and servants enhances the sense of a leader’s power and importance.
While the Old Testament does not use the term “divine council,” we see signs of this in passages like Psalm 82; Psalm 89:6–7; 1 Kings 22:19–22; and Job 1:6. Revelation 4 expands upon these by describing members of God’s court and the court itself.
The rainbow around the throne in verse 3 is like the rainbow of Ezek 1:28. Keep in mind that per Gen 9:12–17 the rainbow symbolizes God’s determination to never again release chaos upon the earth. Revelation certainly contains a lot of judgment, but when we see God ruling with the rainbow in view, we can be certain that that the coming tribulation will be measured. The sea of glass (v. 6) points to the same idea. The Bible conceives of the sea as the most destructive force in the universe; the flood resulted from the bursting of the barriers that hold the sea at bay (Gen 7:11; cf. Job 38:8–11). So the crystal sea, fully under God’s control (similar to Solomon’s bronze sea (1 Kgs 7:23–26)) symbolizes God’s overarching power.
Most scholars agree that the “twenty-four elders” of 4:4 are the twelve apostles and the twelve sons of Jacob, patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel, thus merging Old Testament Israel with the New Testament church. More important are the four “living creatures,” drawn from Ezek 1:4–24 and 10:9–17. Their most important feature is not their appearance, but their number (four) and the fact that they are full of eyes (verses 6 and 8; compare with Ezek 1:12 and 10:18). Since “four” is associated with the complete earth (Ezek 7:2; 37:9; Rev 7:1), the four creatures are the beings through whom God “sees” what is happening in the world. God may appear remote, but God is monitoring what is happening on earth.
One interesting difference between the four creatures of Revelation and those in Ezekiel is that the Revelation creatures have six wings, similar to the seraphs of Isaiah 6:1–3. Like those heavenly beings, the four creatures sing “holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty,” adding “who was and is and is to come” from 1:8 to identify God with Christ.
So Revelation 4 combines several Old Testament images of heaven, with New Testament elements. Before the events of Revelation 5 take place, the author wants us to know that the almighty God who has intervened in past human history is still ruling in the present, still watching over us.
The narrative of chapter 5 features the grand entrance of Jesus, revolving around revelation of knowledge about the future. This is how John begins the book of Revelation in 1:1, and this is what has brought John up to heaven in 4:1. According to 5:1, information about what will happen is in a scroll in God’s hand. The scroll is sealed, however. The question posed by the mighty angel in 5:2, “who is worthy?,” reminds us of similar questions posed in “divine council” scenes (Isa 6:8; 1 Kgs 22:20). The angel asks, “who is worthy?,” in a way that will highlight the glory and majesty of Jesus Christ. No one can miss the angel’s question, and no one can fail to notice that only one being has attained the level suitable for opening the scroll.
Verse 6 presents the worthy one, Jesus Christ, as a lamb. Especially significant is the reason given in verse 5 for the lamb’s worth: it is because the lamb has conquered (from the Greek word nikao). (Unfortunately, the NIV’s “triumphed” is an inadequate translation for the underlying Greek word nikao; much better is “conquered,” as in Rev 2–3 (see my post on Revelation 2–3)). This is a great irony of the gospel: a meek, vulnerable being, is honored because he conquers.
There are several things to take away from this passage. First, to learn about God’s nature and character, we do well to read the Old Testament! God has not changed; the picture of God in Revelation 4–5 directly follows an assortment of Old Testament passages. The Old Testament God of power is one and the same as the New Testament God on the throne today. Revelation 4–5 assures us that God is every bit as awesome right now as he was in the past.
Second, even when we do not sense God’s presence, God is watching over us. Overseeing world events is the task of the four living beings who are present with God. And God further keeps in communion with us through our prayers as offered by the elders around the throne (Rev 5:8).
Third, we need to always center our faith on the Lamb, Jesus Christ. Christ gets this place of honor in heaven because he conquered and so gained freedom for all people (5:9). The Old Testament stresses the glory of the One Almighty God; our New Testament teaches us that Jesus Christ is God.
God rules the universe: Jesus is part of that rule. Not matter how trying we find the coronavirus era, let’s always be confident that God remains aware, interested, and in control of what happens to his people on earth.