Heavenly Father, thank you that in the Scriptures we can by faith see through a door into heaven. Help us by your Spirit this evening with the eyes of faith to see our world as it really is; and to see you in your glory. In Jesus name. Amen.
When we live in a world as troubled as ours is, and when our own lives are troubled – how can we celebrate this Easter season with confidence? Well we can and must celebrate – whatever’s going on around us – because God is on the throne of heaven; he is bringing in his Kingdom; and we’re a part of what he’s doing. That’s what the book of Revelation makes so clear.
My title this evening is ‘The Lord is on the Throne’. This is the first in a short series on Revelation chapters 4 to 7, and our passage this evening is Revelation chapter 4. Jane read that for us earlier. If you’ve got a Bible to hand, have that in front of you – and that’ll be a great help.
But it’s hard to make proper sense of Revelation 4 in isolation from what’s around it – so we need to look at what’s before and after chapter 4 as well.
Revelation is an extraordinary and powerful book. It’s a highly structured book, full of picture language and symbolic numbers – especially the number seven. Seven stands for completeness, or the whole of something, or the essence of a thing – the thing as it really is. In fact the whole book of Revelation is a series of seven-fold visions.
So what’s going on in these early chapters of Revelation? I’ll just give you two headings.
1. The Giving of the Promise by the Risen Jesus
This is the first seven-fold sequence, in Revelation 1.9-3.22. And in this section Christ speaks to the whole church on earth now.
Let me say that it’s easy to be rather daunted by Revelation, but we shouldn’t be. Once we get used to it, the picture language and symbolism of Revelation communicate in a very graphic, punchy and powerful way that grabs our imagination and sticks in the mind. If some of the details pass us by, that doesn’t matter too much. The point of it is not in the detail. It’s in the big picture.
Well, in chapters 1 to 3 is the message of the risen Christ to the whole church throughout history, and to every individual local church. That’s why we still read them today. We see ourselves reflected in them and spoken to face to face, as it were, by Jesus. The seven churches represent the whole church.
It’s a church, as presented in Revelation, that struggles. Don’t we know it. Life for the universal church is tough.
So what is Jesus’s message? He warns. He rebukes. He urges. He encourages. And he also gives a series of promises. Put together, they make up one massive promise to the universal church.
This promise of Jesus applies to all those who conquer – who overcome. That is, it applies to all those who, by their perseverance in living by faith in Christ despite all the pressures, show that they belong to Jesus. Jesus knows the desperate struggle of the church on earth. So he reassures us with his promise.
It’s a promise of everlasting life. It’s a promise of forgiveness and cleansing. It’s a promise that we will be co-heirs with him, sharing in his glory, reigning with him, knowing him and being known by him – by name, face to face, eternally secure in the heavenly city, never to leave his side again. The church sins and the church suffers, but Jesus will never let it go. That’s a promise.
So what about the next section, including chapter 4? Well, my other heading is this:
2. The Outworking of the Promise in History
This runs from chapter 4 through to chapter 7. And what we have here are pictures of the whole church and the whole of creation on earth and in heaven until the Day of Judgement.
What we get a sight of here is the gathering of all believers around the throne of God. But the remarkable thing is that in this section the earthly church is clearly still continuing. We’re seeing the earthly church that Jesus speaks to in the seven letters of chapters 2 and 3. But we are also seeing the heavenly church of those who have gone before. So Revelation 4.1 says:
"After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven!"
What then does the apostle John see through this open door into heaven?
At the centre of everything is the overwhelming, majestic, awesome reality of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That vision of God is at the heart of chapters 4 and 5. So:
"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 round the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald." (Revelation 4.2-3)
"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 [Which is referring to the one Holy Spirit. It isn’t saying there are seven Holy Spirits. Remember that seven refers to wholeness or, in relation to God, perfection.]…" (Revelation 4.5-6a)
And just look ahead for a moment to Revelation 5.6:
"And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain …"
So we see the Father on the throne, the Holy Spirit before the throne, and the Son beside the throne. One God in three, ruling all things.
We need to know who’s in charge, don’t we? Especially when it dawns on us that it’s not us, after all. That’s even true in relation to our own government. When the Prime Minister was in intensive care with the virus and, as he himself put it, "things could have gone either way", there was a striking and almost palpable sense of deep anxiety throughout the media right across the political spectrum. The issue was, 'Who’s in charge here? And what’s going to happen to us if the man who’s supposed to be in charge is suddenly removed from the scene? What’s going to become of us?' Then there seemed to be an almost national sigh of relief when we heard that he was out of intensive care.
And he may be Prime Minister, but in the face of all that confronts us – not least death itself – he’s just a relatively powerless politician in a small island nation. How much more do we need to know who’s in charge when we open our eyes to the ravages of sin, Satan, sickness and the death that rampages across our world – and not just in a time of pandemic. Revelation 4 is clear. God is in charge. He is on the throne.
Then around the throne are creatures and people in a series of concentric circles. In the first circle are the representatives of God’s creation (Revelation 4.6-8):
"… and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And round 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 round 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!'"
Then in a circle around them are the representatives of the whole church – the twenty four elders. Twenty four is twelve plus twelve of course, which maybe refers to the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles – the Old Covenant and the New Covenant people of God in heaven (Revelation 4.4):
"Round 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."
"And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
'Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.'" (Revelation 4.9-11)
The other day I heard on the radio an interview with a man called Hylton Murray-Philipson. He’d just left hospital with the staff giving him a guard of honour and applauding him. He’d recovered from the virus after six days in intensive care. Having been on the verge of death himself, he hadn’t been able to attend his own father’s funeral. He was asked about his time in intensive care. In reply, he said:
“One of the very powerful images I had was the image of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee – that just came to me and I like to think that it was Jesus Christ coming to me and helping me in my hour of need.”
Two things occur to me about that account from Hylton Murray-Philipson.
One is that he saw Jesus calming the storm, with the eyes of faith. True Biblical visions communicate saving truth not just to our intellects, but to the depths of our souls. That’s what he needed in his extremis. That’s what we need. That’s why the Lord gave us the Book of Revelation. To teach us truth through visions that go through our minds and down deep into our souls, in an utterly unforgettable way.
The other thing that occurs to me about Mr Murray-Philipson’s Biblical and true vision of Jesus calming the storm is that what he needed to know was that the Lord he trusts is the maker of heaven and earth and everything in it, and that therefore the Lord is in ultimate control of his creation. He doesn’t necessarily spare us from the storm – but he is control of it, and he will rescue us from it. He can do that, in the words of Revelation 4.11:
"… for [he] created all things, and by [his] will they existed and were created."
Then in a yet larger circle around those twenty four elders, there are the angels. Look on again for a moment to Revelation 5.11:
"Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, 'Worthy is the Lamb who was slain …'"
People used to think that the sun – and all the planets – orbited around the earth. Our world was at the centre. In other words, we were at the centre of everything. But then, with the help of a bit of lateral thinking from Copernicus, we realised that, in our solar system anyway, we’d got it all wrong. We’re going around the sun. We’re not at the centre at all. The sun is.
But in fact that’s not the real revolution that our thinking needs to undergo. The truth is, one fragile newborn baby is more important than mere expanses of rock and gas and empty space, however mind-bogglingly vast they may be.
The real revolution we need is the one set right in front of our eyes by Revelation 4 and 5. We are not at the centre. But neither is the sun. God is. The triune, living Lord – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the one who made all things, the one who rescues his people, the one who changes us from the inside. God is at the centre and heart of all things. Everything revolves around him. His creation. His people. His angels. Circle around circle around circle. All bowing before him. All worshipping him. All singing his praise.
That’s what we need to grasp. And not just in our intellects – but deep down in our souls. Maybe that’s what the living God is reminding us of through this global pandemic, if we have the eyes to see. Everything revolves around the living, loving, all-powerful Lord. If we think he’s out on the wilder fringes of the universe, then we urgently need to think again. He is the centre of all things.
So Revelation 4 gives us an astounding insight into the way things really are. You won’t hear this on the news. You won’t see this on the reports of the chaos and death the virus is causing around the world. But this is the real story.
We’re under no illusions that the earth is being ravaged by war, hunger, disease, natural disaster and death. The four horsemen have been let loose. But God is on the throne and we are safe – not from those things but through those things – for all eternity.
What are we inclined to worry about as we face the future – for ourselves, our families, our church, our nation? What if the worst happens? Remember Revelation 4. The Lord is on the throne. So underneath the inevitable waves of anxiety that wash over us, we can deep down rejoice.
Realism; optimism; joy; and glory. Those are the notes of the song that we sing. That is why we celebrate, this Easter time.
Let’s pray. And let’s join with all creation, all those who’ve gone before us, and all the angels in the words that are being sung around the throne:
Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come. Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created. In Jesus name. Amen.