Revelation 4 and Apocalyptic Throne Imagery

Revelation 4-5 are often read only for their value in describing worship (worthy is the Lamb….) or their angelology (who are the elders?  What are the four living creatures?)  While these elements are certainly there, the function of these chapters in Revelation is to introduce the vision of the seven seals.  The Lamb is worthy of the same worship applied to God, but this means he is also worthy to open the scroll with seven seals. These seals represent the beginning of God’s judgment on the world.

John in Heaven

First, the “door of heaven” is opened, is a common apocalyptic element.  The idea of going “up to heaven” may be drawn from Gen 28:17 or Ps 78:23, but is developed in non-biblical apocalyptic into the idea that heaven is closed.  Only the visionary is invited to “come up” into heaven.

3 Maccabees 6:18 Then the most glorious, almighty, and true God revealed his holy face and opened the heavenly gates, from which two glorious angels of fearful aspect descended, visible to all but the Jews.

1 Enoch 14:8-9 And behold I saw the clouds: And they were calling me in a vision; and the fogs were calling me; and the course of the stars and the lightnings were rushing me and causing me to desire; and in the vision, the winds were causing me to fly and rushing me high up into heaven.

Second, John hears a “voice like a trumpet.”  This too is a common apocalyptic element as trumpets are used to signal an announcement. Perhaps this is a description of some king of ecstatic state.  John’s body remains on Patmos, but in his spirit (mind?) he experiences heaven.  Paul appears to have experienced the same sort of thin in 2 Cor 12:1-4, in non-biblical apocalyptic 1 Enoch 70-73 and 81 are quite similar.

 1 Enoch 71:1-2 (Thus) it happened after this that my spirit passed out of sight and ascended into the heavens. And I saw the sons of the holy angels walking upon the flame of fire; their garments were white—and their overcoats—and the light of their faces was like snow.

Third, as John enters heaven in the Spirit, he sees a fantastic throne (Rev 4:2-3). This vision is very similar to that of Ezekiel 1-3 as well as Isaiah 6, but the main source of imagery appears to be Daniel 7:9-27. Again, there is some element of“stock language” in the description of the throne. Throne imagery is important in Revelation, although John never names the one on the throne. It is as if he cannot find a word to describe the glory of God associated with the throne.

 Testament of Levi 5:1 At this moment the angel opened for me the gates of heaven and I saw the Holy Most High sitting on the throne.

John is describing heaven exactly the way any Jewish reader would have expected heaven to look in the late first century. Imagine if he had described heaven like a modern office complex, or Disneyland (the allegedly happiest place on earth) or a resort in the Caribbean. The original readers would not understand the imagery, since they were expecting these sorts of stock images of “what heaven might look like.”

This might be a good warning against using these descriptions to create a list of things about what heaven is really like.


16 thoughts on “Revelation 4 and Apocalyptic Throne Imagery

  1. There are no words to describe what it is going to be like when entering heaven for the first time. Revelation 4-5 give the best imagery of this and I can’t help but have hope that it is going to be superb. Like I mentioned in another previous post, most of these passages in chapter 4-5 are reflected in the book of Isa. and Ezk. For the author, one can conclude that this is an experience that actually took place. John describes the experience to the extent that is modeled in the way we sometimes view of heaven will look like. Nevertheless, the “Scroll and the Lamb” chapter gives us a good indication of what God will do when we walk before him and see the great thrown at which he sits on.

  2. It is essential to read this passage, as it gives us somewhat of an image of what heaven is like, and as well as the value of worship that is discussed. The imagery of the worthy lamb that was slain is one of the most iconic phrases in the bible, and a iconic phrase in modern worship. To be able to begin to imagine what heaven is like is a great start, and this passage does a sufficient job of beginning to turn those cogs in our brains, and really beginning to think about the wonders and the grand vastness of what heaven really is. It should really give the reader the thought that if the earth has some of the landmarks and beauties that it does, one can only imagine what the wonders of heaven is like.

  3. I completely agree with what you said about this passage allowing our minds to begin to turn. It is interesting to wonder what heaven will be like. I feel that heaven will be beyond description of man. However, man will always try to describe heaven. I feel that in heaven God will still be so much bigger than the angels and the believers there. This may be why the voice will be like a trumpet. Even though we will enter into heaven, God will still be so much greater and glorious than us. This will definitely be a sight to see.

  4. I think heaven can be a dangerous concept to focus on beyond simply an idea of the wonderful end. Heaven can easily become a motive for salvation and following the Lord due to fear of death or desire of eternal life. While these are certainly good and important parts of our salvation, it misses the value of faith. We shouldn’t follow God simply because it is the best for us or because we get riches, but because it is the right thing to do; because God is good and faithful and the creator of the world. This might be one of the reasons why heaven is made so vague in the Bible, as it might not be meant to be understood.

  5. Heaven is something so beautiful; I think so beautiful that it can be hard to comprehend. I like how this post mentions this, “It is as if he cannot find a word to describe the glory of God associated with the throne”. It was almost like John could not even find a word to describe it. I take that as it is almost to beautiful for a human mind to comprehend. God is so amazing and i expect nothing less than for John to not even be able to come up with a word to describe Heaven. Obviously, nothin on this earth compares to the beautifulness of Heaven.

    • I would agree with you here Jared that with the beauty that heaven brings that it is hard to comprehend and that John had a hard time writing about it because of the same thing. That is what makes heaven a mystery, but a good one. To me, I look at heaven with the same notion in the sense that it is something we can wait patiently even in a world where being patient is not normal. Going to heaven for the first time is one of those instances in a persons life where you won’t know how to describe it until you actually see it for yourself.

  6. It is crazy how many descriptions we use and sing in worship. But do we actually wonder what the content is or do we just say “Oh that sounds nice?” For me, I tend to go, “that’s nice,” and move on, I never really look for the more in depth reason behind a phrase in a song. This made me really think that we should not just be singing songs to sing them, we should know what we are actually singing about. God is cool and we need to take that time for him.

  7. Of course nobody can even begin to understand what heaven will be like. But I think that it will be the restoration of the relationship that we had with God in the garden. It will be returning and reconnecting with God. Often times I think that we focus too heavily on the location or surroundings of heaven. But I think the thing that we will mostly be swept away with is the fact that we will again be able to connect to God with no separation or temptation of sin.

  8. Just like in any good novel, it is important to foreshadow the events coming up in the plotline to give the audience a transition. For this to fully take effect you need the whole thing and not just skim the chapter. This is the kind of importance that these two chapters hold in the “storyline” of revelation. only gleaning the meaning of worship from these passages is not giving the passage the full potential that it has to transform you and your heart.

  9. Heaven is something beautiful to talk about and even describe to others. I know that it is sometimes hard to fully grab and understand how beautiful Heaven will be. Even with John, he had a hard time giving us a description of what Heaven looks like. If someone can think of a destination on earth that they would love to see and have the reputation of being a beautiful city. Well, times that destination by a couple million and that’s Heaven. God is amazing and has created some beautiful things to look at but it’s impossible to compare anything on earth to heaven. Being able to describe heaven will be hard to do. You can try but you will either not describe it fully and leave something out. But this is something that we have to wait and see for yourself to get the full the affect.

  10. Yes that is good to note that John is being showed heaven through a medium which he would understand and somewhat comprehend. Just as disney land or a resort in the Caribbean sparks an emotional response or excitement for us in modern day, what was being described to John sparked the same type of feeling for him. The only way we can really describe Heaven is through the effects it will have on us physically, spiritually emotionally and so forth. We all know that Heaven will be a place of Joy and perfection and that it will exceed anything we have experienced here on earth. What John saw may or may not be exactly what Heaven will look like. But the elements and principles I would think would be present.

  11. It is interesting to see the similarities of throne room descriptions in the Old Testament (Daniel & Ezekiel), New Testament (Revelation), and pseudepigrapha (The Testament of Levi & 1 Enoch). One thing that is clear in all of these is that they all seem extremely Jewish. Jewish in the sense that most have elements of the same imagery. There is a lot of specific priestly imagery. The writers of Reading Revelation have a nice description of the connection.
    “Seeing the heavenly throne room as a heavenly temple, the twenty-four elders’ accouterments are even more directly suggestive of priestly activities –their harps recall Levitical duties and their bowls of incense the priestly duties in the earthly temples” (57).
    This is a fairly distinct Jewish culture that is being described. Clearly this is a place of worship and typically the place of the highest praises to a Jew would probably be the Temple. Whether it was destroyed or not, the Temple was the place any Jew would look back to when thinking about the highest of praises given to God. It was a place of great worship. This is what is interesting to me… Would the throne room be described differently if the person viewing it was from a different culture? OR is John describing something that is actually very different but using terms and imagery that the Jewish people would know to make it familiar to them? Maybe this heavenly throne does look like a very Jewish priestly worship place? I would only assume that heaven is going to be a place that is indescribable. This is why I think John used the imagery that he did. He had no other imagery to use aside from what he already knew. He knew Jewish imagery and that is how he described it. It was all in his head anyway.

  12. This is a good thing to keep in mind that John was describing Heaven in a way in which it made sense to him and made sense to his readers. Like you said P.Long, if John had tried to describe heaven as a tropical beach resort the way we would picture paradise, or at least some of us, it would have made no sense to them. It makes me wonder that if we were to see heaven today, or even when we do get to heaven if we tried and described it to someone who was not yet in heaven, we would have to describe it the best way possible and with words and experiences that we know and are familiar with. That is exactly what John was doing, describing it the best way he knew possible. By describing indescribable things with the vocabulary and experiences he had. He could even find the words to describe God on the throne, will any of us be able to even fathom what we will experience when we get there?

  13. That is a great reminder, that John wrote this so that his readers would understand; it doesn’t necessarily mean that is what heaven will actually look like. Another interesting thing is in Revelation 4:5, when John describes God with “the appearance of jasper and carnelian”. According to Johnson in the ESVSB study notes, “John suggests luminous colors… but avoids precise description of the Almighty’s visible features, perhaps because he knew no language to describe what he saw” (p. 2469). In other words, God was so beautiful and majestic, and John had to use words that closest portrayed this to him, yet still fell short. I wonder if this could be applied to this whole section where John describes heaven; perhaps it was so great, so beautiful, so heavenly, that John had no human words to truly describe it. So, while he attempted to describe it using human words, perhaps he fell short of this too.

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