The Throne Room of Heaven audio (4MB)
I applied for ordination in 1988 - in another diocese from this. When I went for the interview to see if I was acceptable, one of the questions I was asked was “What is God like for you?” It’s a good question, isn’t it? What is your image of God? Now I have an idea that the answer I gave wasn’t the right one because they ended up telling me to come back in a year’s time to ask again. Or perhaps it was the right one but not the one that most of them thought was right. It’s very easy to get a mixed up view of what God is like, isn’t it? Popular views of God change with the popular culture. I think if you asked many Christians in the west today their answer would be something along the lines of “God is a God of love” or “God is my friend” - “my mate” as one of our kids songs puts it. Or God is the all-loving, ever-patient, longsuffering parent who’s just waiting for us to come back to him. All of those ideas are true of course. God is all of those things. But none of them sums up his nature sufficiently. What we find in our passage today is so far beyond anything I just mentioned that it’s likely to blow your mind.
Remember, the Church is under siege from within and without. The letters we find in chapters 2 & 3 of Revelation give us a good idea of how hard things are for the early church. Persecution from the Roman authorities and false teaching from within their own ranks are making it hard for these Christians to remain faithful to Jesus Christ. And so God has sent this message to John to reassure them and to strengthen them to persevere. But remember the message is a message in pictures - moving pictures.
And so John looks up and sees a door opening into heaven. And then a voice speaks to him, the same voice he heard in ch1, the voice of Jesus apparently: “Come up and I’ll show you what must take place after this.” And suddenly John has this out of body experience. He finds himself, in the spirit, standing in the throne room of heaven.
God is at the Centre
What he sees is breathtaking. In the middle of the scene is a throne with someone seated on it (we assume it’s God because this is generally how God is pictured in the pages of the Bible). And he looks like Jasper and Carnelian. Well, what does that mean? How can you look like a precious stone? When we were in Istanbul last year we went to the Topkapi palace where there’s a gem called the Spoonmakers Diamond and as you looked at it the light reflecting from it gleamed with a brilliance only a diamond could provide. That’s the sort of thing John seems to be recounting. And listen to how God is described in Psalm 104: “You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment.” Or 1 Tim 6:16: “It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” What John sees is like light reflecting from the brightest of gems, blinding in its brilliance. It’s similar to the vision in Ezekiel 1 where Ezekiel sees a throne that looks like sapphire with a rainbow around it. Here there’s a rainbow around the throne that looks like an emerald.
God is Surrounded by the Greatest of Beings
Then around the throne he sees twenty four other thrones and seated on these thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. These elders are like the privy council of heaven and they’re set around the throne almost like guards. They appear later in the book speaking God’s word, or bringing the prayers of the saints before God, or bowing in worship and singing praise to God. These appear to be a higher angelic order. The number 24 generally indicates the totality of those who are redeemed by the lamb so perhaps these angelic beings with their white robes and golden crowns are the angelic counterparts of the new royal priesthood that Jesus Christ has brought into being.
God is Unapproachable
Then he sees, coming from the throne, flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder. Are you starting to get a feel for the picture that he’s drawing for us. How do you feel when you’re in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, with lightning and thunder all around? Some people I know would be climbing under the bed at this stage, if they could find one.
Here is the throne of God, gleaming with unapproachable light, surrounded by angelic beings of a quite impressive stature, with lightning and thunder cracking all about. And along with the lightning he sees seven flaming torches - but they’re not just torches; these are the seven spirits of God - whatever that means. I did say there was a lot in this book that’s hard to understand. Well these seven spirits may refer to the sevenfold description of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11. Or it may simply be a way of representing the complete expression of God’s spirit that goes out from him into the world.
And then in front of the throne there’s something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
In the Old Testament the sea was seen by the Jews as epitomising chaos. It stood for the fallen world. The sea was wild and dangerous, resisting God’s control. So in Gen 1 where the earth is described as formless and empty we’re told the Spirit moves over the face of the waters as a sign that God is subduing even the sea. And in the new creation in ch 21 as the new heaven and earth appear we’re told there was no sea. God is in total control.
So too, here in the throne room there’s something like a sea, but of glass - not a ripple in sight. God is in total control.
But the point of this sea of glass is more than that. In conjunction with the elders on their thrones, the lightning and the seven spirits of God, this glass sea serves to separate God from his people. God sits on his throne in unapproachable light, surrounded by this sea of glass and nothing can come near him.
As much as we might like to think of God as our friend, as our mate as one of our kids songs puts it, or as our loving father, we mustn’t lose sight of who it is we’re talking about when we talk about God. He is the Sovereign God Almighty, hidden from our eyes because if we looked at him face to face we’d be destroyed by his purity.
God is to be Worshipped and Adored
Finally John sees four living creatures on each side of the throne. These creatures are there to lead the heavenly court in worship. They echo the four creatures that Elijah sees in his vision in Elijah 1 though with some variations in detail. They look like creatures from the animal kingdom. First a lion - the symbol of royalty or nobility, then the Ox, a symbol of strength and stability, then a human being - normally associated with intelligence and will; and finally an eagle, probably representing speed, or perhaps the swift execution of God’s judgement.
Each creature has 6 wings. The vision of Isaiah 6 helps us there. 2 wings are to cover their face so they don’t look into the face of God, two to cover their feet and lower body in modesty, and two are to fly with. And their wings are covered in eyes, all around and inside. Eyes represent the omniscience of God, or perhaps his ability to search out and judge wrongdoing.
But what are these four creatures doing as John looks on? Day and night without ceasing they sing, "Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come."
What does it mean that God is holy? It sometimes has the idea of separate or set apart. But that doesn’t really sum it up does it. Separate is the Lord God Almighty just isn’t enough is it? Does it mean he’s righteous? Well, yes but not just that. Does it mean he’s pure? Yes, but more than that. Holy is a word that’s used of God because it’s what God is like. And it’s the only adjective that’s used of God in this triple form. You don’t find almighty, almighty, almighty is God, do you? Or Love, Love, Love - unless it’s in a song by the Beatles. But we do find Holy, Holy, Holy, several times. Holiness always refers to God or to things or people who are associated with God. So, for example, the instruments used in Temple worship were considered to be Holy. Holy describes what God is like - he’s other than us, separate from us - as illustrated by John’s vision here. He is holy, holy, holy. He was and is and is to come. He sums up everything. He was before all things and will be there at the end. And that’s why they fall down before him.
When we’re confronted by the one who is holy, who is eternal, all we can do is fall down in worship.
God is to be Worshipped because he Created all Things.
Finally, as if that wasn’t enough, the 24 elders then join in. They cast their crowns before him because whatever their crown means to them it’s made irrelevant by God’s presence. Here is the essence of worship. We take off our crowns, we take off our pretensions to autonomy, to the rule of our little world and we throw them on the ground before the one who truly rules over everything. And what do they cry: "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created."
If you ever have a discussion with a non-Christian about your faith in God there’s every chance that their response will be something like this: “I’m very happy for you but it’s just not for me. I know your faith means a lot to you but really, I have other things on my agenda at the moment. I just don’t feel the need for a God in my life.” Well this last point is the answer to all such evasions. We worship God, not because we have a need for a God in our life. Not even because he’s forgiven our sins, though that’s certainly an added reason. No, we worship him first and foremost because he created all things, and by his will they existed and were created. You and I are here solely because God’s will allows it to be; allows us to be. There is no such thing as a life independent of God.
What is your image of God? Is it an image that serves your self interest? Someone you can call on in times of trouble? Someone who’ll forgive your never-ending catalogue of sins? Someone who gives you comfort when life is tough? Or is it this picture that John is given of a God who is transcendent, unapproachable in his holiness, surrounded by the greatest of angelic beings who can think of nothing they’d rather do than fall down at his feet and sing his praises?
If someone asks you that question in a pre-ordination interview some time tell them without hesitation: “That is the God I worship.”
God only wise,
In light inaccessible
hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious,
the Ancient of Days,
Thy great Name we praise.