When John sent the epistles to the seven Asiatic churches, what, one may well ask, was there to fulfil the introductory chaps. 4 and 5? Those who look at the seven churches as only past have nothing to say that explains it: all is vague and jejune. Historical authorities are equally at fault. It is the grand and impressive opening of "the things which must take place after these," that is, "after the things which are" (the sevenfold course of things ecclesiastical). The new things cannot begin till the existing things, however protracted, come to an end. The future is in contrast with the present state of things; but the world-kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ is not even announced till long after in Rev_11:15, and even then much has to be done before it is established here below as in Rev_20:4.
Chapters 4 and 5 therefore introduce an interval of the deepest interest, and of all importance to discriminate. From Revelation 6 preparatory dealings of God with men generally (whether Israel or the nations), and with remnants out of both, follow the existing church period, and fill the transition that intervenes before the kingdom comes for the earth in power and glory. Hence we shall find conspicuous among other dates the well-known prophetic term of Daniel under its three forms of a time, times, and a half, of forty-two months, and of twelve hundred and sixty days. But what came to pass, after the letters were despatched to the seven churches in Asia, which accounts for this glorious preliminary vision in heaven which the prophet was caught up to behold? Does it not suppose the total passing away of that church state, which we all believe still to subsist? Does it not reveal, "after these things," the action of God's throne by judgments on the world, to put the Lord Jesus in possession of His long-promised inheritance of all things?
The church condition indeed is not, strictly speaking, the subject of prophecy, which deals with the world, and shows us divine judgments coming on its evil, when God is about to make room for glory according to His own mind. Such is the great theme of the book of Revelation. But inasmuch as there were Christian assemblies then, the Spirit of God is pleased to preface it with a most remarkable panoramic view of the church condition, as long as it should subsist before the Lord on the earth. We have seen this given with the most striking wisdom, so as to suit at the time of John, yet also as long as Christianity goes on, always applying and increasingly, not every part at once, but with sufficient light to give children of God full satisfaction as to the mind of the Lord. The churches delineated in these seven epistles are "the things that are," a phrase which naturally lends itself to continuance. It is not prophecy; yet the letters of Christ afford, as time passes, divine light on the succeeding states Christendom assumes. Nevertheless the coming of the Lord remains thus in God's wisdom the ever-present and constant hope of the Christian. So indeed the Lord took care to guard against misuse of His parabolic instruction.
Thus the change is immense as a whole, and the revealed details only the more disclose its true nature. There is no vision henceforth of the Son of Man in the midst of churches. No more are churches recognised when "the things which are about to take place after these" begin. Rev_22:16 is no exception; for this applies only in John's day, or at most as long as the existing condition abides. It is only in the conclusory appeals of the book, and has nothing to do with the predicted things to succeed the present. Chapter 4 lets us see a quite new sight in heaven after the existing things terminate on earth.
"After these things I saw, and, behold, a door opened in the heaven, and the first voice which I heard as of a trumpet speaking with me, saying, Come up hither, and I will show thee the things which must take place after these things. Immediately I became in Spirit; and, behold, a throne was set in the heaven, and upon the throne one sitting, and the sitter [was] in appearance like a stone jasper and sardius; and a rainbow round the throne in appearance like an emerald. And round the throne [were] twenty-four thrones, and upon the thrones [I saw] twenty-four elders sitting, clothed with white garments, and upon their heads golden crowns. And out of the throne proceed lightnings and voices and thunders; and seven torches of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God; and before the throne as a sea of glass like crystal. And in the midst of the throne and around the throne [were] four living creatures full of eyes before and behind; and the first living creature like a lion, and the second living creature like a young ox, and the third living creature having the face as of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, having each one of them respectively six wings, are full of eyes round and within; and they have no intermission day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy Lord, the Almighty God, that was and that is, and that is to come. And when the living creatures shall give glory and honour and thanksgiving to him that sitteth upon the throne, that liveth unto the ages of the ages, the twenty-four elders shall fall before him that sitteth upon the throne, and shall do homage to him that liveth unto the ages of the ages, and shall cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God, to receive the glory and the honour and the power; because thou didst create all things, and for thy will they were, and were created."
At the epoch where the chapter first applies, the day of the Lord is not come; but a vast change previous to it has taken place, and brought strange sights before the Seer. The scene is shifted from earth to heaven. It is no longer a question of the churches: they are over, and disappear. "After these things" the prophet saw; "and, behold, a door opened in the heaven," and the first voice which he heard trumpet-like says, "Come up hither, and I will show thee the things which must take place after these things" - a phrase which nowhere in the N.T. admits of the vague sense of "hereafter," least of all in this part of the Revelation, where it is in manifest contrast with "the things which are." A brief interval there may be, followed by the things which are about to take place, and must, "after these things" or the existing church status.
For such a sight immediately John became in Spirit; and, behold, a throne was set in the heaven, and upon the throne One sitting in appearance like stone of jasper and sardius. The same stones figure, especially the first, in the glories of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21), where we are helped by its crystallising character. This has induced some to imagine the diamond against all usage of the word. There is no room for such a fancy; for the aim is to show that the jasper here, like the gold - not only pure, but "like pure glass" - is above all nature in its symbolical application. If jasper be naturally semi-opaque, gold is so wholly. Here they are emphatically translucent. As the sardius is fiery red, jasper was not to oppose but strengthen the judicial appearance of His glory who sat the central object of the scene, not on the propitiatory or mercy-seat but upon the throne. He is about to judge the world in the way of providential chastisements with increasing severity, before He sends the Firstborn Heir of all things to bring in the kingdom.
God would judge; but a rainbow round the throne, in appearance like an emerald, indicated that though about to judge unsparingly, He remembered His covenant, not with Israel yet, still less His grace to the saints, but to creation on which many blows must soon fall. For as the issue creation was about to be delivered from the thraldom under which it-as yet groans, and shall be set free from corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. The kingdom of Christ will have it in full joy and peace, before the eternal day when all things are made new in the deepest sense.
Another notable object meets his eye: round the throne are twenty-four thrones, and upon the thrones twenty-four elders* sitting, arrayed in white garments, and upon their heads crowns of gold. Isaiah saw no such company in Isa. 6; nor did Ezekiel in his opening chapter: Ezek. 1 or at any other time; nor does Stephen hint it in Acts 7; nor Paul in 2 Corinthians 12. Daniel indeed saw thrones set up (not "cast down"); but they were empty. John here and now saw them filled with four-and-twenty elders, the chiefs of the twenty-four courses of priesthood. They exercised priestly functions in Rev_5:8. But they are a royal priesthood also; they wear crowns of gold and sit on thrones; and their garb is in accord. Can there be a doubt that they are the glorified saints?
* "Elders" seems a descriptive term eminently in keeping with the heavenly redeemed. For it is appropriated already in Hebrews 11 to the O.T. saints, who though they obtained witness through faith, did not receive the promise, God having foreseen, or provided, some better thing for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Here they are seen together made perfect; and assuredly, if the term is one of dignity, due to those who eschewed the wisdom of the age for the wisdom that comes from above, those who now have the mind of Christ by the Spirit may well be so called too. They are both elders in the sense of firstfruits of Christ before the great harvest that is to follow in a day to come.
Scripture, be it observed, never speaks thus of disembodied souls any more than of angels. The symbolic heads of the heavenly and royal priesthood are complete. From Revelation 4 to 19, when the kingdom comes in power and the enemies are made Christ's footstool, the number stands unchanged. From first to last are twenty-four elders: there is no addition; whereas, if the souls of saints separate from the body were meant, how many must have, from the day John saw them, been adding continually? The elders therefore represent not the unclothed who depart to be with Christ, but the full complement of those whose mortal was swallowed up by life, the saints of both O. and N. Tests. changed at Christ's coming and caught up to be with Him in the Father's house. His coming between Revelation 3 and 4 falls in precisely with the existing facts and the vision of what follows. What else accounts for the disappearance of churches? What else explains the sight of the symbolic representatives in full of the saints destined to heavenly glory, who shall accompany Christ when He comes with His holy myriads to execute judgment against all the ungodly? (See Rev_19:14.)
Some no doubt wonder that there is no vision of the translation of the saints to heaven, save perhaps mystically in Revelation 12, as we shall see. John 14 had clearly spoken of it; 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 had revealed the different characters of the Lord's coming and of His day; and 2 Thessalonians 2 had shown their true correlation, in correction of false teachers who sought to alarm by the rumour that the day was come, and in recall of the saints to the hope of His coming and gathering to Him above before that day of terror and judgment for the earth. Hence the sight of the twenty-four elders enthroned and crowned above must convey the clearest proof that Christ had come and taken His own to heaven ere this vision could be given.
Another consideration of no small force in confirming this remark is, that the judicial character of the Revelation excludes that wondrous act, which is one of sovereign grace, and entirely apart from vision of judgments, with parenthetic disclosures here and there of mercy in the midst of judgment. Here we find it not described but presupposed in the plainest way, and so strongly confirmed that any other hypothesis is fairly untenable.
It is not here the Father's throne, nor the throne of the God of grace. Out of it proceed lightnings and voices and thunders. This is in no way its expression while God is occupied with the gospel of His grace, or now making known to the principalities and authorities in the heavenlies through the church His all-various wisdom according to an eternal purpose which He made in Christ Jesus our Lord. It precisely suits the transition after the saints are caught up, and the world comes under God's strokes, before the Lord shall be revealed from heaven with angels of His power in flaming fire, taking vengeance on those that know not God, and on those that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus, on Gentiles and on Jews, no church being mentioned on earth (compare 1Co_10:32).
Again the symbol of the Spirit's action agrees with the change. It is not parted tongues as of fire sitting upon each one, in testimony to all mankind of a Saviour Lord and His work of redemption, but seven torches of fire burning before the throne, the fulness of consuming light and judgment on evil. Still less was it the Spirit descending as a dove and coming on the Lord Jesus here below. Each appearance was perfectly appropriate. So it is here for the judicial dealings of God about to take place in an apostate world.
"We have an altar," says Heb_13:10 to the Christian Jews, "whereof they have no right to eat that serve the tabernacle." But no altar is in this scene. It was no more needed by those who kind it fully, when the Jews lost it save in form: the saints were in heaven. It is made all the more striking, because the prophet did see before the throne as it were a glass sea like crystal (which glass at that time was far from like). Some have tried hard to divert this emblem from the molten sea for the priests to wash in, but in vain. For it is an allusive contrast of marked significance. Those taken to heaven and glorified wanted "the washing of water by the word" no more. It is a sea, not of water, but of glass (not the material of the vessel, but its contents). This declares that it is not purifying but fixed purity, which never could be true till the saints were all changed at Christ's coming, as the symbol attests.
Next is seen a more difficult sign to read aright. "And in the midst of the throne and around the throne four living creatures full of eyes before and behind." The chief creatures of earth and air (not of the sea), which were saved in Noah's ark, furnished the forms; the lion, the young ox, the man, and the eagle. They were emblems of power, firmness, intelligence, and rapidity, though indeed Each one had six wings, that is, only short of perfection in movement. They were the cherubim, but distinguished strikingly from the manifestations to Ezekiel, and incorporating also the seraphic qualities seen by Isaiah. They were full of eyes, not only before and bellied but round and within; their perception was complete and intrinsic; and they have no cessation day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy Lord, the Almighty God, that was and that is and that is to come. Thus do they celebrate the Holy One, and in His O.T. names of the Lord, the Almighty God, and Jehovah; for here it is so in all strictness, rather than as we read in Rev_1:4; Rev_1:8. "Our" God and Father is wholly absent; as even in chap. 1 the utmost approach was to Christ's God and Father. For the three preliminary chapters (however full of divine profit, yet occupied with the judgment of the churches) are but the avenue, through the things seen and the things that are, to what was about to take place after these, the proper and strict prophecy of the book.
It is to be remarked that there is dead silence as to angels in our chapter, whereas they distinctly appear in Rev_5:2; Rev_5:11-12. This suggests what solves the difficulty often and largely felt. For the living creatures in themselves present the attributes of providential power in the execution of judgment; but the comparison of the chapters points to change in its administration from the angels who are now the agents to the redeemed who are to be. Hence in Rev. 4 the angels are merged as it were in the living creatures; in Rev. 5 they are distinguished in view of Christ's co-heirs, to whom and not to angels God will subject the inhabited earth to come (Heb. 2). The rendering of "beasts" in this case is still more unhappy than the belittling of "thrones" into "seats." It is quite a different word in Rev_6:8 literally, and elsewhere symbolically.
And beautiful it is to see that, as often observed, the elders sat unmoved on their thrones before the judicial display of God's glory, and the signs of His displeasure in the lightnings and voices and thunders which went forth from His throne, with all other solemn tokens of coming judgment. But when the living creatures give glory and honour and thanksgiving to Him that sits on the throne, that lives for ever and ever, the elders fall and pay homage, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God, to receive the glory and the honour and the power; because thou didst create all the things, and for (or, on account of) thy will they were and were created. It was not only worship, but in full spiritual intelligence. Those that are a new creation in Christ enter into God's rights as Creator; which earth's inhabitants, and especially apostate Christians, are about to dispute and deny. Their zeal is in due season and character. For God's will the whole was in being, as it was also created.