The Uniform Series text for Sunday, April 22 is Revelation 4. (Actually, it’s Revelation 4:1-6, 8-11, but honestly, why bother leaving out verse 7?) Here are my notes on the text:
Background and Context: Historically, the book of Revelation looks to be from not before 64 CE, and not really later than 90 CE or so. Whether earlier or later, it seems to have been written by a member of a community that was undergoing some kind of persecution, to members of that community. Its themes of “faithfulness unto death” and the ultimate punishment of the wicked would speak to that audience.
As literature, Revelation belongs to the genre of “apocalyptic.” “Apocalypse,” a Greek word that literally means “uncovering” (so, revelation), is the name of the book in Greek. A feature of that genre is that God or God’s forces destroy the present world and replace it with new one – as happens in the book of Revelation. Chapter 4 comes early in the book, after an introduction and greeting that frame the text as a Greek letter, followed by an encounter with Christ, and a set of seven messages from Christ to churches in Asia. Chapter 4 marks the author’s transition to the next part of the text: a description of future events, from the perspective of heaven. The heavenly worship described in chapter 4 works as something like the entry point to this part of the text.
Closer Reading: The first two verses set up a movement from lower to higher. First the author sees the open door in heaven. Then he hears the voice of Christ (already encountered in 1:12-20, and the one who gave the messages in chapters 2-3) calling him up. That voice is “like a trumpet,” and it may matter that trumpets formally call people to action. Then the author is “in the spirit,” which seems to allow him to enter heaven, where he sees the throne and “the one seated on the throne.”
“The one seated on the throne” is the center of the text; the text repeats the phrase four times. Interestingly, “the one seated on the throne” is the focal point of all the action in the text, but performs only two actions. The one seated on the throne lives (v10), and created everything in existence (v11). Presumably “the one seated on the throne” is the source of the flashes of lightning and sounds of thunder described in v15, but in the text these seem just to happen, not to be made to happen. The text, that is, creates the impression that “the one seated on the throne” is overwhelming and awesome just by being there.
“The one seated on the throne” is visible – maybe because the author is “in the spirit” – and every element of that sight is shiny (jasper and carnelian are typically highly polished stones) or glittering (the emerald rainbow, the “crystal” sea around the throne, the flashes of lightning). We know “the one” is important because of central position (not by size, interestingly enough): everything else in the text is arranged “around” this central reality.
“Everything else” is two kinds of subsidiary beings: the “elders” and the “living creatures.” Both are awesome themselves. The elders sit on thrones and have golden crowns, symbols of majesty and authority, wearing white – maybe symbolic of purity, maybe of importance (Roman political candidates wore white, too) – which adds to the brilliance of the scene.
The “living creatures” resemble the living creatures Ezekiel sees by the River Chebar (Ezekiel 1:5-11) – so creatures like this have already been associated with the throne and the glory of the God of Israel. They differ in details (number of wings, number of faces – could it be the difference between the portable, travel-size throne in Ezekiel and the regular one here?) The different faces of the living creatures have come to symbolize the four gospel writers over the years, by the way: John the eagle, Matthew the human or angel, Luke the ox, and Mark the lion. Being “full of eyes” probably tells us they are watchful, always alert.
The living creatures do one thing: sing, similar to the six-winged seraphim in Isaiah 6:2-3. The lyric of the song is God’s identity: holiness, divinity, presence. The Greek word translated “Almighty” is pantokrator, “ruler of everything.” The elders do three things: “fall down” or prostrate themselves in worship, cast their crowns before the throne, and sing. The elders’ lyric is God’s value, or worth – we might say, importance – which follows from God’s having created everything else.
So, the main activity in this vision of heaven is worship.