This is the third of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 2+3, John blogs to seven churches. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading.
So we're on to chapter 4. Reading this tonight, I was heard to say "I need to read it in more than one translation, this is a strange one". Well it is, but then it's not unique in this book! (And, for what it's worth, there are few differences between the two main translations I use, the New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version.)
I'm not a huge fan of section titles in Bibles - they often conceal as much as they reveal - but in this case the NRSV's title for this chapter is about right: "The Heavenly Worship". John sees a door into heaven (in passing, following a question from my wife Becky, traditionally John who wrote Revelation was identified with John who wrote the fourth gospel and John who wrote three letters found in the NT, but modern biblical scholars are divided and many doubt these to be the same person). He passes through the door "in the Spirit" - perhaps in some sort of visionary state rather than physically - and finds himself in a throne room, in front of the throne of God. This in itself is a sort of vision, of power and worship.
There is no description of God as such except that he has the colour of jasper and cornelian (two jewels), but we're told about the surroundings - a rainbow, a sea of glass, seven flaming torches (described as the seven spirits of God), lightning and thunder. Around the throne are twenty-four other thrones, each occupied by an elder dressed in white. And on each corner of the throne there are four living creatures, of the sort that might be seen in a vision - six wings, eyes all around them, each looking like a different creature (lion, ox, human, eagle).
Clearly there's deep symbolism here (again). Traditionally the four creatures have been equated with the four gospel writers (which would be odd if John himself is seeing them) and used as the symbols of the four writers, but there's no mention of that here. The number twenty-four is twice twelve, and twelve is a crucial number in Jewish faith, being the number of the tribes of Israel (hence its recurrence in the twelve apostles of Jesus); but who exactly who are the twenty-four elders is unclear.
It feels a bit like a royal court, ruling the heavens as advisors to God. There are several Old Testament passages with visions of God on his throne which resemble this text closely - Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, Daniel 7 - and in some of these the court is explicitly identified. The details are very close to those earlier visions, which isn't so surprising - Jewish literature often draws on earlier texts, and spiritual visions of all kinds draw for their interpretation on the visionary's experiences.
But this is a court where power is not the point. The point is worship. The four creatures are said to be singing constantly "holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come". The twenty-four elders give praise to God as worthy "to receive glory and honour and power". Whatever their own power or authority, their first concern is to give honour to God, not to celebrate their own power.
Before everything else, worship and praise of God comes first. There are strange sights to be seen, but worship of God comes first. And that phrase "who was and is and is to come" shows the eternal nature of the experience. It existed in the past, exists now, and will continue to exist for ever. There have been times in our history when Jerusalem, or perhaps Constantinople, were called the centre of the world, the navel, the eternal place. In this text, it is the throne of God which is the eternal place.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, a day to think about death and life and peace and war. I have any number of issues with the politics of the day, but I respect the death of so many people in so many pointless wars. War is an abomination, and it arises from struggles over power. Here we see the ultimate source of power, and it has no room for violence or war. It has room only for worship, and for the love of God.
Moreover, I'm writing this in front of the television, half-watching a programe about a wonderful humanitarian, a Sikh man who has travelled from the UK to Iraq to bring aid to people in terrible suffering. The people who inflict that suffering are not of God. There is no room for hate or destruction in front of the throne of God. Nor is there room for the petty differences between faiths - good people, doing the will of God, are the same everywhere, whether called Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or atheist. All those who live out love are worshipping God, calling holy, holy, holy to the one who was, and is, and is to come. And may it be so.
Next reading: ch 5, Song to the Lamb