(Rev. 4:1-11 ESV) After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! 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.” 2 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. 3 And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.
4 Around 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. 5 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, 6 and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 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.
8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around 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!” 9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11 “Worthy are you, 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.”
The 24 elders
This is a picture of heaven. It’s not intended to be taken literally — but it teaches true lessons — and the first is that those represented by the 24 elders worship God continually.
Opinions on who the 24 “elders” are differ. At first glance, it seems likely to mean the 12 tribes (or their patriarchs) of Israel and the 12 apostles. But there is evidence that Jewish popular legends in the First Century spoke of 24 arch-angels around the throne of God. (There are not necessarily two different things.)
The twenty-four thrones are probably a symbolic number representing the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles (cf. 21:14). They could be actual humans who have gone to their rewards, or they could be angelic representatives of all the people of God. From the way they are described, we might conclude that they are humans who have already received what Jesus promised to the churches in the seven letters in chapters 2, 3:
• Jesus promised the church in Laodicea in 3:21 that the one who conquers will sit with him on his throne. John here sees those who have what Jesus promised.
• Jesus promised the church in Sardis in 3:5, “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments,” and John now sees these twenty-four elders clothed in white garments.
• Jesus promised the church in Smyrna in 2:10, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life,” and now John sees these twentyfour elders wearing golden crowns.
On the other hand, when we see these “elders” in the rest of the book of Revelation, they seem to be classed with angels rather than with humans (cf. 4:4, 10; 5:5, 6, 8, 11, 14; 7:11, 13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4). If they are humans, they are those who have gone before, who have received what Jesus promised to the overcomers. If they are angelic members of the heavenly court, they testify that Jesus can make good on the promises he has made.
The vision of these twenty-four elders in 4:4, seated on thrones around the throne of God, clothed in white garments, golden crowns on their heads, declares to us that God keeps his promises. Jesus can give what he said he would give. The members of the heavenly entourage possess what Jesus promised to those who conquer.
James M .Hamilton Jr., Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches (Preaching the Word; ed. R. Kent Hughes; Accordance electronic ed. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2012), 144-145.
When we worship God (whether by living for Jesus, as in Rom 12:1, or in the assembly) we are worshiping along with the faithful dead, who continually praise God — not because God’s ego needs stroking but because this is what they want to do. It’s not about obeying a command but following a regenerated heart.
NT Wright is fond of saying that we become like what we worship. If we worship money, we begin to see the world in monetary terms. We think of other people as “assets” and think in terms of how we monetize our relationships. If we worship power, we see people as rungs on the ladder to the top. If we worship sex, we see people as sex objects, or people who can help us acquire sex objects. If we worship God, well, we throw our crowns at his feet, not just because he’s our King but also because God took off his crown to die on a cross for us. We throw our crowns because there’s no other way to become like God.
(Phil. 2:5-10 ESV) 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
This is a thought you won’t find in Left Behind.
The four creatures
Regarding the four creatures — lion, ox, man, and eagle — Gorman suggests that they represent all the living beings created. It would make sense.
We can safely say, in view of their closeness to the throne, that these are the most important of created beings, even that they stand in some way for the whole of creation. But it is hazardous to say more.
Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 20; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 92.
Quite possibly, the four creatures represent all creatures on earth — humanity, wild animals (the lion), domestic animals (the ox), and the birds (the eagle). It’s easy to imagine the ancients seeing the world this way. It’s not scientific, but it would represent how we actually experience the world. We Westerners would want to add fish or marine creatures, but the Jews were not seafarers. They thought of the sea as “the abyss” — a realm of fear and danger.
Another explanation (not necessarily inconsistent with the first) is —
The tribes of Israel were divided into four groups in the wilderness, and each group was located at one of the four directions of the compass, with the sanctuary in the middle of the camp. According to Targ. Pal. Num. 2 each group had a standard with the colors of the stones representing their tribes on the priest’s breastplate and with an insignia on it: a lion, a stag (originally an ox), a man, and a serpent (which later tradition changed to an eagle). Later Jewish tradition affirmed that this configuration was intended to reflect the arrangement of the four guardian angels around the divine throne. If this material has a link with earlier tradition, it could suggest further that the living creatures in Rev. 4:8ff. represent humanity, especially the worship of the ideal community of God.
G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 331.
But I rather like the idea of God being worshiped by the entirety of creation. We modern folk don’t think that way, but the Bible does.
(Ps. 148:1-14 ESV) Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
2 Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts!
3 Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars!
4 Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
5 Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were created.
6 And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.
7 Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps,
8 fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word!
9 Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
10 Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds!
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
12 Young men and maidens together, old men and children!
13 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven.
14 He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him. Praise the LORD!
Sounds a lot like —
(Rom. 8:22-23 ESV) 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
The groaning of anticipation becomes a song of praise as the Kingdom becomes fully present and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Yes, it’s poetry. But it’s very important poetry — because it tells us that the earth won’t be thrown away like a candy wrapper. It’s not trash. Rather, it’s made to declare God’s glory.