After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! 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." At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Around the throne, and 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 a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, "Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come." And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, "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."
In 1522, Martin Luther wrote.
About this Book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment. I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.
First and foremost, the apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and pla in words, as do Peter and Paul, and Christ in the gospel. For it befits the apostolic office to speak clearly of Christ and his deeds, without images and visions.
Moreover he seems to me to be going much too far when he commends his own book so highly [Revelation 22]—indeed, more than any of the other sacred books do, though they are much more important—and threatens that if anyone takes away anything from it, God will take away from him, etc. Again, they are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. This is just the same as if we did not have the book at all. And there are many far better books available for us to keep.
Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it. But to teach Christ, this is the thing which an apostle is bound above all else to do; as Christ says in Acts 1[:8], “You shall be my witnesses.” Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.
This preface was part of Luther’s campaign to get the book of Revelation removed from the Bible. His reasons, it’s not from the apostles (none of them wrote entirely in visions), the overly bold, self-described claims as to how great the book is makes him uncomfortable and it does not proclaim Christ clearly and purely, the message of God’s salvation is hidden someplace in a serious of difficult, frightening visions. Luther wonders what comfort and good news this book can offer. Now, Instead of following Luther’s advice to ignore or disregard this book, we are starting a 4 week series on The Revelation to John.
I wanted to start by answering a few questions I have (and you might have too).
Why are we looking at Revelation? The answer is simply because I would rather we learn about it here, together then on our own. I had a few choices for the next 4 weeks, a series on the sacraments or something completely different. The book of Revelation is the most confusing and difficult book in the Bible to understand and find grace in, but there is grace in it. It is an often abused book where people twist its words and visions around. People have created a big, not really Christian business around interpreting this book. We must be very suspicious if anyone talks about only a few verses from revelation without its context. The end of the world is big business but the Revelation to John is not about the end of the world.
That brings up our next question, if it’s not about the end of the world, what is it about? Also called the Apocalypse of John, this book is a disclosure, unveiling or revealing of a series of visions John receives. These visions are rooted in Old Testament references, symbols and secret codes. The book is about Christ’s victory over all evil forces and God as creator and redeemer.
Now, we have to ask why is it written in this way? Revelation’s message of God’s ultimate victory over the forces of evil was meant to be understood by insiders and dismissed by persecutors or outside authorities. A book that said, God is more powerful than and will destroy the Roman Empire, the monetary system and the kings of the world, would have lead those authorities to attack Christianity as rebellious. On the other hand, a book that talks about multiple headed dragons and horsemen with flaming swords, bowls of death and monsters, that gets dismissed as crazy talk by those who do not understand the symbols. Revelation was written to 7 churches in Asia. (the first 3 chapters are individual messages of encouragement against persecution and correction in faith to these communities, we will look at those in our Bible study after church) While John, the author of this book, is unknown (it is almost certainly not the same author as John’s Gospel), we do know the author understood the history, life and rituals of the Temple well. The author was well versed in the Hebrew scripture. There are 440 verses in the book of revelation, 275 of them are references to Old Testament. Numbers are deeply important, not so much for what they describe but for what they mean (7 is perfect, 6 is imperfect or evil, 12, the number of tribes and disciples, is special)
Most importantly, whenever we look at the book of Revelation, we have to remember this book is visions, not prophesy. There is a big difference. We can think of the events seen in revelation like the visions of Christmas past, present and future in Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. In particular the sad, difficult vision of Christmas future, of what could be, what will be unless things change. If you remember the story, things do change and that vision of Christmas future never comes to be. Here in Revelation, God always has all the power, God does not have to do anything in this book, God is not promising to do anything in this book.
I’d like to end with a few thoughts on today’s actual reading. Revelation 4 is a vision of the heavenly throne room. Many parts of this vision are reported by prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah. The vision of God’s throne room, and the book of Revelation in general, shows that God is to be praised. The 4 creatures covered in eyes, which represent all creation, sing constant praise to God, The 24 elders represent the community of faith and they too worship God. (its probably 24 to represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples) Even the physical properties (gems, crystal, valuable stones) and layout of the place (God is the creator and center) reflect God’s power and glory. We are invited to worship too. In this scene, there is no doubt God is in control. Things are rightly ordered. This is a bit of a spoiler, but Revelation does not end with death and destruction, that is not the ultimate message. It ends with a new creation, a time when earth looks like this throne room.