Chapter 4: The Throne Above the Sea

David Chilton

Narrated By: Daniel Sorenson
Book: The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of The Book of Revelation


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Chapter Text

The Pattern for Worship (4:1-11)

  1. After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven, and the first Voice which I had heard, like the sound of a trumpet speaking with me, said: Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.
  2. Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a Throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting
  3. like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the Throne, like an emerald in appearance.
  4. And around the Throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads.
  5. And from the Throne proceed flashes of lightning and voices and peals of thunder. And there were seven lamps of fire burning before His Throne, which are the seven Spirits of God;
  6. and before the Throne there was, as it were, a sea of glass like crystal; and in the middle of the Throne and around it were four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind.
  7. And the first creature was like a Lion, and the second creature was like a Bull, and the third creature had a face like that of a Man, and the fourth creature was like a flying Eagle.
  8. And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and they have no rest day and night, saying:
    1. Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, who
      was and who is and who is to come.
  9. And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the Throne, to Him who lives forever and ever,
  10. the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the Throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the Throne, saying:
  1. Worthy art Thou, our Lord and God, the Holy One, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created.

1          This verse is used by advocates of Dispensationalism to support their “Rapture Theory,” the notion that the Church will be snatched away from this world before a coming Tribulation; indeed, this verse seems to be the main proof-text for a pre-Tribulation rapture. St. John’s “rapture” into heaven is regarded as a sign that the whole Church will disappear before the plagues recorded in the following chapters are poured out. Part of the rationale for this understanding is that the Voice John heard was like the sound of a trumpet, and St. Paul says that a trumpet will sound at the “rapture” (1 Thess. 4:16). Some advocates of this position seem oblivious to the fact that God uses a trumpet on numerous occasions. In fact, as we have seen in the first chapter, the connection between God’s Voice and the sound of a trumpet occurs throughout Scripture, beginning with the judgment in the Garden of Eden. For that matter, St. John heard the voice like a trumpet in the first vision (Rev. 1:10). (Does this indicate a possible “double rapture”?)[1]

The Dispensationalist school of interpretation also appeals to the fact that, after the Voice has said Come up here, “The word ‘church’ does not again occur in the Revelation till all is fulfilled.”[2] This singular observation is set forth as abundant proof that the Book of Revelation does not speak of the “Church”[3] from this point until the Second Coming (generally placed in 19:11), which in turn proves that the Church has been raptured and is absent, in heaven, away from all the excitement – all because the word “Church” is missing! On the basis of such a curious principle of interpretation we could say with assurance that Revelation doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus either until chapter 12, because the name “Jesus” does not occur until then (thus “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” and “the Lamb that was slain” [5:5-6] must be terms for someone else).[4] Of course, this method of interpretation involves even more problems for the Dispensationalist: for the word “Church” never again appears in the entire Book of Revelation at all! This interpretation of the words Come up here does not, therefore, support the pretribulation rapture of the Church; it possibly even teaches the pretribulation annihilation of the Church. After the last verse in Revelation 3, the Church simply disappears, and is never heard from again.

Obviously, this is not true. The Church is known by numerous names and descriptions throughout the Bible,[5] and the mere fact that the single term “Church” does not appear is no indication that the concept of the Church is not present. Those who see in this verse some “rapture” of the Church are importing it into the text. The only one “raptured” is St. John himself. The fact is that St. John only uses the word Church with reference to particular congregations – not for the whole body of Christ.

Nevertheless, we must also recognize that St. John does ascend to a worship service on the Lord’s Day; and this is a clear image of the weekly ascension of the Church into heaven every Lord’s Day where she joins in the communion of saints and angels “in festal array” (Heb. 12:22-23) for the heavenly liturgy. The Church acts out St. John’s experience every Sunday at the Sursum Corda, when the officiant (reflecting Christ’s Come up here!) cries out, Lift up your hearts! and the congregation sings in response, We lift them up to the Lord! We noted in an earlier chapter the comment of St. Germanus that “the Church is an earthly heaven”; the Patriarch continued: “The souls of Christians are called together to assemble with the prophets, apostles, and hierarchs in order to recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the mystical banquet of the Kingdom of Christ. Thereby having come into the unity of faith and communion of the Spirit through the dispensation of the One who died for us and is sitting at the right hand of the Father, we are no longer on earth but standing by the royal Throne of God in heaven, where Christ is, just as He Himself says: ‘Righteous Father, sanctify in Your name those whom You gave me, so that where I am, they may be with Me’ (cf. John 17).”[6] John Calvin agreed: “In order that pious souls may duly apprehend Christ in the Supper, they must be raised up to heaven…. And for the same reason it was established of old that before consecration the people should be told in a loud voice to lift up their hearts.”[7]

We have already seen (on 1:10) that the expression in the Spirit (v. 2) is technical prophetic language, referring not to St. John’s subjective feelings but to his objective experience as an inspired receiver of divine revelation. Being “in the Spirit” was the special privilege of the Biblical prophets. Summarizing his extensive research on this point, Meredith Kline writes: “Adam’s creation as image-reflector of the glory of the Creator-Spirit was recapitulated in the history of the prophets. The critical event in the formation of a prophet was a transforming encounter with the Glory-Spirit from which the prophet emerged as a man reflecting the divine Glory…. To be caught up in the Spirit was to be received into the divine assembly, the heavenly reality within the theophanic Glory-Spirit. The hallmark of the true prophet was that he had stood before the Lord of Glory in the midst of this deliberative council of angels.”[8]

But, with the coming of the New Covenant, what was once the special prerogative of the prophetic class within the Covenant community has become the privilege of all. The desire of Moses – ”Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, that the LORD would put His Spirit on them!” (Num. 11:29) – has been fulfilled in the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17-20. Just as Moses (the prophet par excellence of the Old Covenant) was uniquely privileged to speak with God face to face (Num. 12:6-8), partaking of His glory (Ex. 34:33-35), so now “we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). Every believer has received the prophetic anointing (1 John 2:20, 27); and every week we ascend in the Spirit into the heavenly assembly.[9]

In part, therefore, the “Rapture Theory” is based on a misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine of the Ascension of the Church. The definitive Ascension took place positionally with Jesus Christ, in whom we are seated in the heavenlies (Eph. 1:20; 2:6); the progressive (experiential) Ascension takes place liturgically with Jesus Christ every week, in the celebration of the Eucharist (Heb. 12:22-24); and the final (culminative) Ascension takes place eschatologically with Christ a) spiritually, at death (Rev. 20:4), and b) bodily, at the end of history (1 Cor. 15:50-55; 1 Thess. 4:17).[10]

2-3      In order to receive the revelation, St. John is caught up to heaven, where he sees a Throne and One sitting: John is going to view the coming events from the true vantage point, the Chariot-Throne of God in the Glory-Cloud. God is the Determiner of all things, and a right understanding of the world must begin from a right understanding of the centrality of His Throne. “In the infinite wisdom of the Lord of all the earth, each event falls with exact precision into its proper place in the unfolding of His eternal plan; nothing, however small, however strange, occurs without His ordering, or without its peculiar fitness for its place in the working out of His purpose; and the end of all shall be the manifestation of His glory, and the accumulation of His praise.”[11]

And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance: God is seen as in a blaze of unapproachable light (cf. 1 Tim. 6:16), for St. John has been caught up into the heavenly holy of holies, the inner Sanctuary of the cosmic Temple in the Cloud of glory. Underscoring this is the fact that John sees a rainbow around the Throne, like an emerald in appearance. It is worth noting that these three stones, jasper (perhaps an opal or a diamond),[12] sardius (a reddish stone), and emerald, represented three of the twelve tribes of Israel on the breastplate of the high priest (Ex. 28:17-19, LXX); they are also mentioned among the jewelry that littered the ground in the Garden of Eden (Ezek. 28:13, LXX). Compare John’s vision with that of the prophet Ezekiel:

… there was something resembling a Throne, like lapis lazuli in appearance; and on that which resembled a Throne, high up, was a figure with the appearance of a man. Then I noticed from the appearance of His loins and upward something like glowing metal that looked like fire all around within it, and from the appearance of His loins and downward I saw something like fire; and there was a radiance around Him. As the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. (Ezek. 1:26-28)

St. John is thus in the true Temple, the heavenly archetype that formed the pattern for Moses’ construction of the Tabernacle (Ex. 25:40; Heb. 8:1-2, 5; 9:23-24). He sees the Throne, corresponding to the Mercy-Seat; the Seven Lamps, corresponding to the Seven-Branched Lamp; the Four Living Creatures, corresponding to the Cherubim; the Sea of Glass, corresponding to the Bronze “Sea”; and the Twenty-Four Elders, corresponding to the Twenty-Four Courses of Priests. (See Appendix A for a more full account of the Levitical symbolism here and throughout Revelation.)

4          Around the Throne St. John sees twenty-four thrones, on which are seated twenty-four elders. Who are these elders? In a well-known essay, the great New Testament scholar Ned Stonehouse, of Westminster Seminary, defended the view that these elders are “celestial beings of a rank superior to the angels in general, like the cherubim and seraphim of the Old Testament if they are not to be identified specifically with them.”[13] Despite Stonehouse’s masterful defense of his position, it rests on an assumption about the text that is certainly incorrect, and thus his interpretation is seriously astray. (More on this textual issue, and Stonehouse’s opinion, will be covered below, in the discussion of 5:9).

On the other hand, there are cogent reasons for understanding these elders as representatives of the Church in heaven (or, as St. John progressively unfolds throughout his prophecy, the earthly Church that worships in heaven). First, the mere name elders would indicate that these beings represent the Church, rather than a class of angels. Nowhere else in the Bible is the term elder given to anyone but men, and from earliest times it has stood for those who have rule and representation within the Church (see Ex. 12:21; 17:5-6; 18:12; 24:9-11; Num. 11:16-17; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9; Heb. 13:17; James 5:14-15). Thus, the elders in Revelation would appear, at face value, to be representatives of God’s people, the senate sitting in council around their bishop.

This consideration is reinforced by a second observation about these elders: They are seen sitting on thrones. We have already been told in this prophecy that Christians are reigning with Christ (1:6), that they wear crowns (2:10; 3:11), that they have been granted kingly authority with Him over the nations (2:26-27), that apostates will be forced to bow before them (3:9), and that they are seated with Christ on His Throne (3:21). Now, in chapter 4, we see elders seated on thrones; is this not a continuation of the teachings already presented?

Third, we should consider the symbolism of the number twenty-four. In general, since twenty-four is a multiple of twelve, there is again a prima facie reason to assume that this number has something to do with the Church. Twelve is a number Biblically associated with the people of God: Israel was divided into twelve tribes; and even the administration of the New Covenant Church is spoken of in terms of “twelve tribes,” because the Church is the New Israel (see Matt. 19:28; Mark 3:14-19; Acts 1:15-26; cf. James 1:1). St. John uses the word elder twelve times in Revelation (4:4, 10; 5:5, 6, 7, 11, 14; 7:11, 13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4). The number twenty-four is thus a “double portion” of twelve. Multiples of twelve are also built into the symbolic structure of the New Jerusalem, as we read in the final vision of the prophecy (21:12-14):

It had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels; and names were written on them, which are those of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel….

And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

But the picture of the twenty-four elders is based on something much more specific than the mere notion of multiplying twelve. In the worship of the Old Covenant there were twenty-four divisions of priests (1 Chron. 24) and twenty-four divisions of singers in the Temple (1 Chron. 25). Thus, the picture of twenty-four leaders of worship was not a new idea to those who first read the Revelation: It had been a feature of the worship of God’s people for over a thousand years.[14]  In fact, St. John has brought together two images that support our general conclusion: (I) The elders sit on thrones – they are kings; (2) The elders are twenty-four in number – they are priests. What St. John sees is simply the Presbytery of Heaven: the representative assembly of the Royal Priesthood, the Church.[15]

That these elders are both priests and kings shows that the Aaronic priesthood of the Old Covenant has been superseded and transcended; the New Covenant priesthood, with Jesus Christ as High Priest, is a Melchizedekal priesthood. Thus St. John tells us that these priest-elders are wearing crowns, for the crown of the high priest has been given to all. The two independent testimonies from the second century that St. James in Jerusalem and St. John at Ephesus wore the golden crown of the high priest have generally been discounted by modern scholars;[16] but these traditions may reflect the actual practice of the early Church.

This brings us to another point that should be mentioned before we move on. We have already noted (see on 3:20) several problems caused by the rationalistic tendencies of those groups that grew out of the Reformation. Unfortunately, it became common in those same groups to dispense with the elders’ robe of office. Though the concern was for “spirituality,” the actual effects were to platonize doctrine and worship, and to democratize government and ministry – further steps on the long, dusty road toward Reformed barrenness. As Richard Paquier reminds us, “Color is a teacher through sight, and it creates moods. We misunderstand human nature and the place of perception in our inner life when we downgrade this psychological factor in the worship of the Church.”[17] God has created us this way, and the continuing validity of official robes follows properly from the patterns laid down in the Old Testament: The official character of the elder is emphasized by the use of official robes, in the same way that the judges in our culture still wear robes – a practice, incidentally, that grew out of the practice of the Church.

Paquier continues: “It is natural, therefore, that the man who officiates in the worship of the Church be clothed in a manner corresponding to the task assigned to him and expressing visibly what he does. Moreover, whoever leads in the act of worship does not perform as a private party but as a minister of the Church; he is the representative of the community and the spokesman of the Lord. Hence, an especially prescribed vestment, a sort of ecclesiastical ‘uniform,’ is useful for reminding both the faithful and himself that in this act he is not Mr. So-and-So, but a minister of the Church in the midst of a multitude of others. What was not any less indispensable in ancient times, when the sense of community and of the objectivity of cultic action prevailed, has become in our time a very useful aid, and indeed truly necessary, since individualism and subjectivity have become so deeply rooted in the piety of the Reformed churches.”[18]

5-8      St. John describes the heavenly court in terms of the familiar acoustic and visual effects which accompany the Glory-Cloud, as at Sinai (Ex. 19:16-19): From the Throne proceed flashes of lightning and voices and peals of thunder. Again, as in 1:4-5, the imagery is shown to be the heavenly original of the Tabernacle structure (Heb. 8:5; 9:23): Like the Lampstand with its seven lamps burning within the Holy Place, there are seven lamps of fire burning before His Throne, the seven lamps imaging the seven Spirits of God, the Holy Spirit in His sevenfold fullness of activity. Here, again, is the combination of the three aspects of the Glory-Cloud imagery: the Voice (v. 1), the radiant Glory (v. 3), and the Spirit (v. 5).

Then before the Throne St. John sees, as it were, a sea of glass like crystal. This is another point at which this vision intersects with that recorded in Ezekiel 1. But the Throne is seen from two different perspectives. Whereas St. John is standing in the heavenly court itself, looking down upon the “sea” of glass (which corresponds, in regard to Tabernacle furniture, to the Laver, also called the “sea”: Ex. 30:17-21; 1 Kings 7:23-26), Ezekiel is standing at the bottom of the Glory-Cloud, looking up through its cone, and the “sea” at its top appears as a blue firmament[19] above him:

And as I looked, behold, a storm wind was coming from the north, a great Cloud with fire flashing forth continually and a bright light around it, and in its midst something like glowing metal in the midst of the fire. And within it there were figures resembling four living beings…. Now over the heads of the living beings there was something like a firmament, like the awesome gleam of crystal, extended over their heads…. And above the expanse that was over their heads there was something resembling a Throne…. (Ezek. 1:4-5, 22, 26)

Another similarity to Ezekiel’s vision is that St. John sees four living creatures standing in the middle of the Throne and around it, supporting the Chariot-Throne in its flight (cf. Ps. 18:10), as do the four cherubim in Ezekiel (note that they are both “in the middle” and “around” the Throne; cf. the close connection between the Throne and the living creatures in 5:6). These creatures (not “beasts,” as in the King James rendering) are full of eyes in front and behind, and appear in the forms of a Lion, a Bull, a Man, and an Eagle. A detailed comparison of these verses with Ezekiel 1 and 10 will reveal many interesting parallels as well as differences between the accounts (reference should also be made to the vision of the six-winged seraphim in Isaiah 6:1-4). That there are four of them indicates some relationship to the altar-shaped earth (compare the Biblical ideas of four corners of the earth, four winds, four directions, the four rivers from Eden that watered the whole earth, and so on). Michael Wilcock explains: “The cherubs of the Bible are very far from being chubby infants with wings and dimples. They are awesome creatures, visible indications of the presence of God. So when we are told (Ps. 18:10) that the Lord travels both on a cherub and on the wings of the wind, we may begin to see a link between the four living creatures of 4:6 and the four winds of 7:1. We might call these cherub-creatures ‘nature,’ so long as we remember what nature really is – an immense construction throbbing with the ceaseless activity of God…. Perhaps their faces (4:7; Ezek. 1:10) represent his majesty, his strength, his wisdom, and his loftiness, and their numberless eyes his ceaseless watchfulness over every part of his creation. It is appropriate then that there should be four of them, corresponding to the points of the compass and the corners of the earth, and standing for God’s world, as the twenty-four elders stand for the Church.”[20]

While John Calvin would have agreed with Wilcock, his remarks on the significance of the four faces of the cherubim are even more radical: “By these heads all living creatures were represented to us…. These animals comprehend within themselves all parts of the universe by that figure of speech by which a part represents the whole. Meanwhile since angels are living creatures we must observe in what sense God attributes to angels themselves the head of a lion, an eagle, and a man: for this seems but little in accord with their nature. But he could not better express the inseparable connection which exists in the motion of angels and all creatures…. We are to understand, therefore, that while men move about and discharge their duties, they apply themselves in different directions to the object of their pursuit, and so also do wild beasts; yet there are angelic motions underneath, so that neither men nor animals move themselves, but their whole vigor depends on a secret inspiration.”[21]

As Calvin says a few pages later, with more force, “all creatures are animated by angelic motion.”[22] This goes directly counter to humanistic notions of “nature” and “natural law,” but it is the Biblical teaching. The reason it sounds strange to us is that our worldview has been permeated by a philosophy that has much in common with ancient Baalism. James B. Jordan has written: “The details of the Baal cult are not of much importance to us now. It is the underlying philosophy of Baalism which is regnant in American education and life today, and which is taught in the science departments of almost all Christian colleges today, and not just in science departments either. Scripture teaches that God sustains life directly, not indirectly. There is no such thing as Nature. God has not given any inherent power of development to the universe as such. God created the universe and all life by immediate actions, not by mediate processes. When God withdraws His Breath (which is the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life), death follows immediately (Gen. 7:22). The idea that God wound up the universe and then let it run its course, so that there is such a thing as Nature which has an intrinsic power, is Deism, not Christianity. Theistic evolution is Deism, not Christianity. To the extent to which the processes of Nature replace the acts of God in any system, to that extent the system has become Baalistic.”[23]

“Because of the influence of neo-Baalism (secular humanism) in our modern culture, we tend to think that God, when He made the world, installed certain ‘natural laws’ or processes that work automatically and impersonally. This is a Deistic, not a Christian, view of the world. What we call natural or physical law is actually a rough approximate generalization about the ordinary activity of God in governing His creation. Matter, space, and time are created by God, and are ruled directly and actively by Him. His rule is called ‘law.’ God almost always causes things to be done the same way, according to covenant regularities (the Christian equivalent of natural laws), which covenant regularities were established in Genesis 8:22. Science and technology are possible because God does not change the rules, so man can confidently explore the world and learn to work it. Such confidence, though, is always a form of faith, faith either in Nature (Baal) and natural law, or faith in God and in the trustworthiness of His commitment to maintain covenant regularities.”[24]

There is another aspect of the symbolism connected with the four living creatures that should be mentioned: their correspondence to the signs of the Zodiac. The Biblical writers were familiar with the same system of constellations as that which we know today, except that the name of the Eagle seems to have been usually substituted for that of the Scorpion. The reason for this may be that the ancient association between the Scorpion and the Serpent (cf. Luke 10:17-19) led Biblical writers to substitute the Eagle in its place; some scholars, however, have argued that “in Abraham’s day Scorpio was figured as an Eagle,” according to the Chaldean system then in vogue.[25] The faces of the cherubim, in both Ezekiel and Revelation, are the middle signs in the four quarters of the Zodiac: the Lion is Leo; the Bull is Taurus; the Man is Aquarius, the Waterer; and the Eagle, as we have seen, is “Scorpio.” St. John lists them here in counter-clockwise order, backward around the Zodiac (probably because he is viewing them from above, in heaven, rather than from below, on earth); but when he uses them in the structure of his prophecy itself, he lists them in the direct order of the seasons.[26] After the Preamble (chapter 1), the Revelation is divided into four quarters, each “ruled” by one of these creatures. The first quarter (Chapters 2-3) was ruled by Taurus; thus the emphasis on the Seven Stars, on the shoulder of the Bull. The second quarter (Chapters 4-7) is ruled by the figure of “the Lion of the Tribe of Judah,” who has conquered to open the sealed Book. The Eagle flies in midheaven with cries of woe throughout the third quarter (Chapters 8-14). And the fourth quarter (Chapters 15-22) is governed by the Man, Aquarius the “Water-Pourer” (cf. the pouring out of the Chalices of wrath, and the River of Life flowing out from the Throne).

There is nothing occult about any of this. Indeed, the Bible strongly condemns all forms of occultism (the desire for esoteric or autonomous wisdom), including astrological occultism (Deut. 18:9-13; 2 Kings 23:3-5; Isa. 8:19-20; 44:24-25; 47:8-15).[27] But this does not mean that the constellations themselves are evil, any more than pagan sun-worship prohibits us from seeing the sun as a symbol of Christ (Ps. 19:4-6; Mal. 4:2; Luke 1:78; Eph. 5:14). On the contrary: The constellations were created by God and manifest His glory (Ps. 19:1-6). They are not simply random groups of stars (nothing in God’s universe is random, in the ultimate sense); rather, they have been specifically placed there by God (Job 9:7-9; 26:13; 38:31-33; Amos 5:8).[28] The arrangement of the twelve tribes of Israel around the Tabernacle (Num. 2) corresponded to the order of the Zodiac;[29] and, like the cherubim, four of the tribes represented the middle signs of each quarter: Judah was the Lion, Reuben the Man, Ephraim the Bull, and Dan the Eagle.[30] The reason for the correspondences between Israel and the stars is explained by Gordon J. Wenham: “Scripture frequently refers to the celestial bodies as God’s heavenly host (e.g. Deut. 4:19), while the armies of Israel are his earthly hosts (e.g. Josh. 5:14 and throughout Num. 1). The earthly tabernacle was a replica of God’s heavenly dwelling (Ex. 25:9, 40). Both were attended by the armies of the LORD. Finally, Genesis 37:9 compares Jacob and his sons (the ancestors of the twelve tribes) to the sun, moon, and stars.”[31] The most famous example of astronomical symbolism in the Bible, of course, is that the birth of the Messiah Himself was announced to the Magi by the stars (Matt. 2:2), as had been foretold (Num. 24:17; Isa. 60:1-3).[32]

St. John next describes the worship carried on by the four living creatures, using a choral section to interpret for us the meaning of the symbols in his vision of the Throne – a device he repeats throughout the book. He draws our attention to the living creatures’ six wings, in order to associate them with the seraphim of Isaiah’s vision:

In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the LORD sitting on a Throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the Temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts,

The whole earth is full of His glory. (Isa. 6:1-3)

Similarly, the living creatures in the Revelation have it as their chief end to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever, praising Him – apparently antiphonally, as Isaiah’s seraphim did – for His holiness, His almighty power, and His eternity: Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come. This too has its counterpart in the standard Christian liturgy, in which the Sanctus follows the Sursum Corda:

Officiant: Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious Name; evermore praising Thee and saying,

All: HOLY, HOLY, HOLY, Lord God of Sabaoth; Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory; Hosanna in the highest!

9-11    But the heavenly praise does not end with the song of the living creatures; for when they give glory and honor and thanks to God, the twenty-four elders join in with antiphonal (or responsive) praise themselves. They will fall down before Him… and will worship Him… and will cast their crowns before the Throne, acknowledging that their authority and dominion derive from Him. They go on to praise Him for His works in creation and history: Worthy art Thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created.

To appreciate the full import of this forthright affirmation of the doctrine of creation, let us contrast it with a statement issued a few years ago by the officers of one of the largest churches in the United States:


In the beginning God created choice. Before God made anything – earth, sky, or man – he had already made up his mind that man was to have a choice. Not limited choice like what color socks to wear today. God gave man complete power of selection, so complete that man could choose – or reject – God. God placed himself in a rather risky position when he armed man with such a tool. He gave man a weapon to use against God.

Can you imagine something you’ve made saying, “I don’t want you, not even for a friend.” God gave man that very option, even though he knew what man’s choice would be. God knew that his creation would turn away from him, hate him. But he also realized there is no better way to prove love than by risking the alternative of rejection. Genuine love requires decision, because genuine love cannot be demanded, ordered, or even regulated. It must be voluntary.

This tells us something about God. God doesn’t do things just for kicks. He must have felt, in some sense, a need of being loved. Do you think it is fair to conclude that God “needs” us? I think so. But he never downgrades the caliber of his love by trying to force us to love him….[33]

Speaking charitably, this is blasphemous nonsense. The only honest thing about it is its lack of Bible references. There are many objectionable points we could consider, but the main one for our purposes is the issue of God’s sovereignty and independence. Did God need to create? Is God lonely? Does He stand in need of His creation? Let the Scriptures speak:

All the nations are as nothing before Him; they are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless. (Isa. 40:17)

I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure. (Isa. 46:9-10)

The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things. (Acts 17:24-25)[34]

In their divinely sanctioned worship, the elders have proclaimed the truth: The creation exists, not because God needed to create, or is dependent upon His creation in any way, but simply because it was His will to create; it pleased Him to do so. God is sovereign, utterly independent from the creation. The Scriptural distinction between the Creator and the creature is absolute.

The heavenly worship service here shows us what God wants in earthly worship. First, worship must be corporate. Biblical worship is not individualistic, quietistic, or solely internal. This is not to say that there is no place for private worship; but it does mean that the Biblical emphasis on corporate worship is a far cry from the bastardized “worship” of many evangelicals, who see individual worship as having a priority over corporate worship, and who even conceive of corporate worship as simply an aggregation of individual worshipers.[35] Another forgotten aspect of the need for corporate worship is the fact that the so-called “worship services” in modern churches are, in reality, either lecture halls or three-ring circus entertainments. In both cases there are star performers, and there are spectators – but the Church, as the Church, is not worshiping corporately. In contrast, the pattern of Biblical worship is the corporate worship service, with full participation among the united members of the congregation, demonstrating a harmony of unity and diversity.

Second, worship must be responsorial. We will see more of this as we proceed through the Book of Revelation – which is about worship as much as anything else – but this has already been the case with the passage we have just studied. The elders and the four living creatures are shown singing musical responses back and forth, carrying on a dialogue. And, in the worship of the Church on earth, that is what we do (or should do) also. We respond liturgically to the reading of Scripture, to the prayers, to the singing of Psalms and hymns, to the teaching, and to the Sacraments. For this is what we see in heavenly worship, and our worship should be structured as far as possible in imitation of the heavenly pattern, according to the prayer Christ taught us: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

Third, worship must be orderly. The elders and the living creatures do not interrupt each other or attempt to upstage one another. While worship should be corporate, involving the entire Church, it must not be chaotic. A basic standard for worship is laid down in 1 Cor. 14:40: “Let everything be done decently and in order.” Charismatics tend to have certain correct instincts – that worship should include the whole congregation – but their actual practice tends toward confusion and disorder, with everyone individually “worshiping” all at once. The solution, recognized in both Old and New Testaments, and by the Church throughout history, is to provide a common liturgy, with formal prayers and responses, so that the people may intelligently worship together in a manner that is both corporate and orderly.

Biblical public worship is very different from private or family worship; it is radically different from a mere Bible study group, as important as that may be. The Sunday worship of the Church is qualitatively unique: It is God’s people coming into the palace for a formal ceremony before the Throne, an official audience with the King. We come to confess our faith and allegiance, to take solemn oaths, to receive forgiveness, to offer up prayers, to be instructed by God’s officers, to eat at His table, and to render thanksgiving for all His benefits; and we are to respond to all of this with music and singing. All of this is corporate, and that necessarily means liturgy. This may mean certain complex and involved changes in our habits and patterns of worship. But God should have nothing less than the best. He is the King, and worship means serving Him.

[1] But wait! Chapters 8-11 record the soundings of no less than seven more trumpets – could there be nine raptures?

[2] The Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, [l909J 1945), note on Rev. 4:1; cf. Hal Lindsey, There’s a New World Coming: A Prophetic Odyssey (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1973), pp. 74ff.

[3] The Dispensationalist use of the word Church is very different from its use in historical, orthodox theology. See O. T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1945, 1947), pp. 54-110; L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., fourth revised ed., 1949), pp. 562-78; and Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, [1954J 1983).

[4] This principle can be fruitfully applied elsewhere in Scripture as well. For example, the word love does not appear anywhere in the Book of Ruth; thus her story turns out not to be, after all, one of the greatest romances in the Bible, for Boaz and Ruth did not love each other. Again, the word God does not appear in the book of Esther; on these principles, He must not have been involved with those events, and the book must not tell us anything about Him. In addition, the first fifteen chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans doesn’t concern the Church, for the word Church doesn’t appear there either!

[5] Paul Minear lists ninety-six of them in the New Testament alone: Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), pp. 222ff., 268f.

[6] St. Germanus of Constantinople, On the Divine Liturgy, trans. Paul Meyendorff (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), p. 101.

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4:17:36 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), Ford Lewis Battles trans., p. 1412.

[8] Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), pp. 57f.

[9] See George Vandervelde’s paper, ”The Gift of Prophecy and the Prophetic Church” (Toronto; Institute for Christian Studies, 1984).

[10] On this definitive-progressive-final pattern, see David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion (Ft. Worth, TX; Dominion Press, 1985), pp. 24, 42, 73, 136, 146-57, 206, 209, 223.

[11] Benjamin B. Warfield, “Predestination,” in Biblical and Theological Studies (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968), p. 285.

[12] “In antiquity the name was not limited to the variety of quartz now called jasper, but could designate any opaque precious stone.” William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 369.

[13] Ned B. Stonehouse, “The Elders and the Living-Beings in the Apocalypse,” in Paul Before the Areopagus, and Other New Testament Studies (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957), p. 90.

[14] See Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services as They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 75, 86ff. Ezekiel saw twenty-five men serving in the Temple: the representatives of the twenty-four courses of the priesthood, plus the High Priest (Ezek. 8:16).

[15] A further argument for this interpretation will be developed in the discussion of 5:9. We will see that the song of the elders recorded there states clearly that they are among the redeemed – a group that does not include angels (Heb. 2:16). The elders, therefore, must be taken in the usual sense as meaning the representatives of the Church.

[16] See Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (New York: The Seabury Press, [1945] 1982), p. 313; W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 127.

[17] Richard Paquier, Dynamics of Worship: Foundations and Uses of Liturgy (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), p. 143.

[18] Ibid., p. 138. As it turned out, some of those Reformation churches that retained the robe chose the black academic gown, perhaps partly in reaction against what were perceived as the excesses of the Roman Church, and in order to emphasize the teaching function of the minister. But, as Paquier points out, “there is not a single reference to black robes in the Bible, whereas white robes and vestments are mentioned many times, either actually or symbolically.

“Indeed, if there is one color that suggests itself as an adequate expression of the Gospel and the evangelical divine service, certainly it is white. In the Bible the color white is the divine color par excellence because it symbolises the holiness and perfection of God (Ps. 104:2; Dan. 7:9; Rev. 1:14; 19:11; 20:11)” (ibid., pp. 139f.).

[19] To Moses and the elders of Israel, the firmament-sea appeared as a sapphire-colored (blue) pavement (Ex. 24:10).

[20] Michael Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened: The Message of Revelation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 64.

[21] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Twenty Chapters of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), Vol. 1, pp. 334f.

[22] Ibid., p. 340; cf. pp. 65-74, 333-340. Calvin was attacked by his own translator for making these and like statements (see Vol. 1, pp. xxvf.; Vol. 2, pp. 421f., 448-55, 466-68, 473f.) Nevertheless, these thoughts are very carefully worked out in the course of his exposition, and this commentary, which Calvin did not live to finish, represents his mature thought on the subject. It is one of the most fascinating volumes I have ever read, and is a rich storehouse of valuable insights.

[23] James B. Jordan, Judges: God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985), pp. 37f.

[24] Ibid., p. 102. See also John Calvin, Commentaries on the Last Four Books of Moses (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), Vol. I, pp. 385-87; Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), Vol. I, pp. 213-15.

[25] Richard Hinckley Allen, Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning (New York: Dover Publications, [1899] 1963), p. 57; cf. p. 362.

[26] Incidentally, the term Zodiac is not an occult word; it simply means circle, and refers to the apparent path of the sun through the heavens. The twelve major constellations are the groups of stars arranged along the sun’s path.

[27] The best Christian refutation of the astrological delusion is in St. Augustine’s City of God, Book V, chapters I-II.

[28] For a study of the relationship of the constellations to the Biblical message, see Joseph A. Seiss, The Gospel in the Stars (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, [1882] 1972).

[29] Or, as good Augustinians, we can say that the Zodiac corresponds to the order of the twelve tribes!

[30] See Ernest L. Martin, The Birth of Christ Recalculated (Pasadena, CA: Foundation for Biblical Research, second ed., 1980), pp. 167ff.; cf. J. A. Thompson, Numbers, in D. Guthrie and J. A. Motyer, eds., The New Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., third ed., 1970), p. 173.

[31] Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p. 65. Wenham is not referring to the Zodiacal constellations, but to something even more astonishing: the fact that the census figures of the tribes of Israel correspond to the synodic periods of the planets! As Wenham points out, the census numbers “affirm the sacred character of Israel. They remind us that God’s promises to Abraham have been fulfiled, and that the holy people of God is called to struggle for him on earth as the stars fight for him in the heavenly places” (ibid.). Wenham’s information is based on M. Barnouin, “Les recensements du Livre des Nombres et l’astronomie babylonienne,” Vetus Testamentum 27, 1977, pp. 280-303. This paper is available in English translation from Geneva Ministries, P.O. Box 131300, ‘Tyler, TX 75713.

[32] See Martin, The Birth of Christ Recalculated, pp. 4-25.

[33] Leaflet published c. 1978 by a church in Santa Ana, California, advertising its Saturday Night Concerts.

[34] One further point should receive at least a notice in a footnote: Is it true, as the pamphlet alleges, that “genuine love cannot be demanded, ordered, or even regulated”? See Deut. 6:5-6; Matt. 22:37-40; Eph. 5:25; 1 John 4:19.

[35] One example of this from the Reformed camp, among many that could be cited, is B. M. Palmer, The Theology of Prayer (Sprinkle Publications, [1894] 1980). This lengthy (352 pp.) work, which purports to provide “a full articulation of prayer in the system of grace,” is wholly concerned with individual devotions alone; it does not mention corporate prayer even once.