First impression of heaven.
What’s the first thing you see when you get to heaven?
A version of this article originally appeared on Core Christianity.
Out of all the books in the Bible, I firmly believe that John’s Revelation wins the superlative for “most misunderstood.” When you think of Revelation, your thoughts are likely immediately drawn to “prophecy conferences” and seminars which promise to make sense of the End Times. Colloquially, Revelation is often regarded as a book of “prediction,” which has led pastors and preachers to make all kinds of their own predictions and forecasts about how the future will play out. The amount of interpretations concerning Revelation and its extraordinary details is truly mind-boggling. Even more mind-boggling, though, is the amount of folks in the church who are dogmatic and divisive about the “proper” way to interpret John’s apocalyptic book.
It’s an example of tragic irony that churches would separate over the ways Revelation is understood, especially when its chief purpose was to encourage and strengthen the church itself (Rev. 1:1–3). John’s original audience was meant to find blessing through reading its varied and dynamic words. And that blessing wasn’t limited to merely insights into the future. Yes, Revelation does reveal future events (“things that will be”), but that doesn’t mean that Revelation is a book that teaches us how to be “future predictors” or “fortune tellers.” Categorizing Revelation merely as “End Times literature” does a disservice to John’s (and the Holy Spirit’s) inspired objective. Which is just to say that while Revelation is apocalyptic, it is also epistolary. That is, it’s a letter, the primary purpose of which is comfort (Rev. 1:4–7).
Revelation’s comfort does, admittedly, contain some elements of “what must take place after this,” but its truest notes of relief are found in the hope and assurance its words offer the church in days of disaster and duress. Accordingly, reading and studying Revelation shouldn’t stress us out about where we are (or where might be) on the “End Times timeline.” Rather, it ought to stir us to faithfulness in the here-and-now, knowing Who it is that has ordained all these events “before the foundation of the world” — namely, King Jesus.
John is “in the Spirit” when he is invited to get a glimpse of heaven’s glory. “After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this’” (Rev. 4:1). That welcoming voice is like “the first voice,” which, of course, belongs to the Lord Jesus himself (Rev. 1:10). Upon going through the door, John is ushered into heaven, the glory of which slaps him upside the head:
At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.
And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:2–8)
It’s crucial to note that this is John’s interpretation of the vision he was given by God’s Holy Spirit. Consequently, much of John’s writing is symbolical; not everything he describes is meant to be taken literally. This is why he repeatedly says that these things “had the appearance of,” which is to say that John’s words are meant to illustrate and/or convey the feeling of the sights and sounds he was invited to experience. “Human language,” says D. G. Barnhouse, “is not fitted to describe Heavenly things” (93). Christ’s disciple is employing the best his Jewish vocabulary has to offer to convey to the churches what he saw. The question is, though, what’s the first thing he saw? What’s the first sight that the Lord Jesus wants to show John and, by proxy, us?
It is said that there are seven principles for interior design, with one of the most important being emphasis. A room’s emphasis is its focal point — that which draws the eye as soon as anyone enters the space. From imposing fireplaces, to striking pieces of art, and ornate furniture, a room’s emphasis could be many things; whatever it is, though, says much about the owners of the room itself. This leads us to ask, what is heaven’s emphasis? This is what the book of Revelation offers, as the apostle John is given a glimpse of heaven while living in exile on the remote isle of Patmos. To what is John’s gaze drawn first, as the Angel of the Lord welcomes him through the door of heaven? (Rev. 4:1). Notably, it’s not a map outlining how all things will come to pass at the end of all things. Nor is it some massive bulletin board revealing how all the events of history intersect with God’s divine plan. Instead, one thing absorbs all of John’s attention.
He is immediately enthralled by a magnificent throne, the seat of heavenly authority. He’s transfixed, in fact — he mentions it some fourteen times in a mere eleven verses (Rev. 4:1–11). What captivates John’s eyes is none other than the very site from which all of heaven and earth is governed. Men and women may sit themselves down on thrones of their own making, but in reality, there’s only one throne from which all things are ordered, and it’s this throne: heaven’s throne. “The throne stands supreme,” R. C. H. Lenski comments, “stands exalted and serene forever” (190). The sight of that seat would be enthralling enough, but John’s gaze settles on the “one seated on the throne” (Rev. 4:2–3). This, of course, is the Lord God Almighty, El Shaddai himself.
The One who spoke all things into existence occupies creation’s throne, ruling in perfect providence and holiness. He “who was and is and is to come” — unbound by space and time — perfectly orchestrates all things according to his divine wisdom and grace. His dominion is ageless, his decrees binding (Rev. 4:9–10). There’s no questioning or disputing the ordinances that come from he who is “seated on the throne,” which sound like “rumblings and peals of thunder” (Rev. 4:5). He is worthy of all because he is Lord of all: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God,” the anthem resounds, “to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11).
Every aspect of this “throne room scene” is aimed at focusing all the attention on “him who is seated on the throne” (Rev. 4:9). Scholars have spent a lot of time and energy attempting to identify the twenty-four elders and four “living creatures” encircling the throne. Their strange and extraordinary descriptions can very quickly steal our attention. But what is clear is that they are heavenly beings whose position and function are completely consumed by honoring “him who is seated on the throne.” They raise a never-ceasing chorus of praise to this thrice-holy God, falling prostrate in reverence before him. And this is what serves as the pulsating comfort of Revelation.
Take a quick glance at your newsfeed or any handful of online publications and you might be led to believe that this world of ours is on the fast-track to ruin. I’ve read a number of blogs and listened to several podcasts — even from fellow Christians — that all seem to suggest that the sky is falling. If I didn’t know better, I might think the future is grim for God’s people; that everything is falling apart. Like David, perhaps we’re tempted to “flee like a bird to the mountains” (Ps. 11:1). We are, no doubt, full of questions, chief among which is, Where is God in all of this?
What John saw serves as our constant supply of hope and peace. Heaven’s throne is decidedly not vacant, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever be. Furthermore, neither is it filled by some nonchalant or indifferent sovereign. Rather, it’s occupied by the Lord Almighty — the One who is actively and authoritatively involved in every last bit of our lives. “That throne,” Dale Ralph Davis says, “is not the place of inactivity but of supremacy; it does not suggest distance but dominion” (129). God on high, the King of kings, is mindful of you and me (Ps. 8:4–6). The same hands that formed every distant planet and set every star in its place are holding onto you. That’s who inhabits heaven’s throne. And he has not — nor will he ever — abdicate his seat.
Donald G. Barnhouse, Revelation: An Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971).
Dale Ralph Davis, The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life: Psalms 1–12 (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2020).
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1963).
Thank you for your recent post. Being reminded that our awesome God is in control during these turbulent times is comforting and encouraging. I strive daily never to forget it. I may have misunderstood, but I detect a note of skepticism regarding the value of the chapters beyond 4 and 5. May I offer a few observations?
Those among us who purport to be teachers should never avoid those passages in scripture which present significant challenges. It is our job to shed light on the “hard stuff,” and to the degree we fail in this, we fail in our task. We should also humbly set aside any theological traditions or biases that might alter an honest understanding of the biblical data. Most importantly, pride must be confessed and expunged. “Interpretations” offered in pride account for most of the division and controversy that exists within the church regarding eschatology.
Chapters 6-22 cannot simply be dismissed as “too confusing,” “too complex,” “too controversial,” “too symbolic,” “too divisive,” etc. That they are all these things is true, but they are so because of pride (cf. above). God is sovereign in the affairs of men and he is not the author of confusion. Having asked John to record “things that will happen after this,” it is clear that God wants us to know the actions he will take as the final denouement approaches. What other motive could the Lord possibly have for chapters 6-22?
As for John’s “limited Jewish vocabulary,” Certainly, he was unable to exhaustively describe what he witnessed, but that he was able to describe in enough detail and with enough clarity that we can understand what he wrote is simply undeniable. His descriptions are filled with meaning and significance and he communicates in language we can and do understand. There are no grounds for skepticism. His language is clear, denotive and unambiguous. We cannot understand everything about the seal, trumpet and bowl judgments, but that they will occur and what they will entail is not hidden from us by the limitations of John’s vocabulary. If it is hidden, it is likely due to our unwillingness to accept what is written. Even at a superficial level, anyone who reads Revelation will know and understand more than they knew before reading, and they will be blessed.
As to how Revelation should be interpreted, here are four fundamental principles (not found in any seminary textbook on hermeneutics) that apply to all of scripture:
“Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.”
“No prophecy is a matter of private interpretation”
“Do not go beyond what is written.”
“To whom will I have regard? To him who is humble, contrite and who trembles at my word.”
Thank you for listening.