The High Court of Heaven
Revelation 4:1-11
After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven…

If the portions of this book hitherto considered have had their difficulties, those on which we now enter are far more beset therewith. But the solemn sanctions given to the reading and study of this book send us, in spite of its difficulties, to the earnest examination of its sayings, certain that in them, even in the most mysterious of them, there lies a message from God to our souls. May he be pleased to make that message clear to us. This fourth chapter gives us the first part of the vision of what we have ventured to call "the high court of heaven." The next chapter reveals more. But in this part note -

I. THE VISION ITSELF. St. John begins his account of it with a "Behold." And well may he do so. He repeats this when he sees the "throne" and him that sat upon it. Again in Revelation 5:5, when he sees Jesus, the "Lamb as it had been slain." And if in like manner this vision come to us, we shall be filled, as he was, with wonder, with adoration, and awe. St. John saw:

1. A door set open in heaven. The sky was parted asunder, and in the space between, as through a door, he witnessed what follows.

2. The throne and its Occupant. He could see no form or similitude, any more than Israel could when God came down on Mount Sinai (cf. this vision and that, Exodus 19.). All that St. John saw was one "like unto a jasper stone and a sardius." The pure, perfect, flashing whiteness, as of a diamond, but with the carnelian redness, the fiery gleams of the sardius (cf. the "sea of glass mingled with fire," Revelation 15:2). Such was the Being who sat upon the throne - that throne, probably, as that which Isaiah saw (Isaiah 6.), being "high and lifted up," some stately structure befitting so august a court.

3. The rainbow, overarching the throne, the mild and beautiful green, emerald-like rays predominating amid its seven-hued splendour. Then:

4. The assessors of him that sat upon the throne. On either hand of the throne were twelve lesser thrones - twenty-four in all; and upon them were seated twenty-four elders, clad in white robes, and with crowns of gold on their heads.

5. Then in the space before the throne were seen seven burning torches. Not lamps, like those that symbolized the seven Churches, and which were after the manner of the seven-branched lamp which stood in the holy place in the ancient temple; but these were torches rather than lamps, destined to stand the rude blasts of the outer air rather than to gleam in the sheltered seclusion of some sacred edifice.

6. Then further off, beyond that central space, was the "sea of glass," like crystal. Clear, bright, reflecting the lights that shone upon it, but not tempest-tossed and agitated, unstable and ever restless, like that sea which day by day the exile in Patmos beheld barring his intercourse with those he loved, but calm and strong, firm and restful, - such was this sea. Then, also in the central space, or probably hovering, one in front, one on either side, and another at the rear of the throne, were:

7. The four living ones. The "four beasts," as, by the most melancholy of all mistranslations, the Authorized Version renders St. John's words, appear here to occupy the same relation to the throne as did the cherubim which were upon the ark of God in the Jewish temple. Strange, mysterious, unrepresentable, and indescribable forms. As were the cherubim, so are these; their faces, their eyes - with which it is said they "teem," so full of them are they - and their six wings, are all that we are told of; for the lion and ox-like aspect, the human and the eagle, tell of their faces rather than their forms, and do but, little to enable us to gain any true conception of what they were. Such were the mysterious beings whom St. John saw in immediate attendance on him who sat upon the throne; and as such, standing or moving around or hovering over the throne, we cannot certainly say which. And all the while there were heard, as "in Sinai in the holy place," voices, thunderings, and lightnings, proceeding from the throne. Such was that part of the vision with which this chapter is occupied. As we proceed we find the scene is enlarged, and more Divine transactions take place thereon. But now note -


1. The door set open in heaven. This tells, as did the vision of the ladder Jacob saw, of a way of communication opened up between earth and heaven.

2. The throne and its occupant. "The whole description is that of a council in the very act of being held. It is not to be taken as a description of the ordinary heavenly state, but of a special assembly gathered for a definite purpose" (cf. 1 Kings 22:19). And this symbol, which mingles reservation with revelation, and conceals as much as it declares, bids us think of God in his majesty, glory, supremacy, and as incomprehensible. "Who by searching can find out God?" It is a vision of the great God - we know that; but of his nature, substance, form, and image it, tells us nothing, nor was it intended that it should. But many precious and important truths concerning him it does tell. Of his awful glory, of his unsullied purity and spotless holiness, of the terror of his vengeance, of his interest in our concerns, of the worship and adoration of which he is worthy, and which he ever receives; of the character, condition, and service of those who dwell in his presence; of the ministers he employs; and much, more.

3. The fail,bow overarching the throne. This is the emblem (cf. Genesis 9:12-16) of God's gracious covenant which he hath established forevermore. And it told to St. John and to Christ's Church everywhere that, awful, glorious, and terrible as our God is, all that he does, of whatsoever kind, is embraced within the mighty span of his all-o'erarching grace. The Church of Christ was to pass through some dreadful experiences, to endure fearful trials, and they are not ceased yet; but she was to look up and see that all God's ways, works, and will were within not without, beneath not beyond, because and not in spite of, his all-embracing love. All were to find shelter, expanse, and explanation there. It was a blessed vision, and, unlike the ordinary rainbow, may it ever be seen by us, and its teaching believed.

4. The four and twenty elder's. These represent the whole Church of the Firstborn, the blessed and holy ones whom God hath made kings and priests unto himself. Their white robes tell of their purity, their victory, their joy, as white robes ever do; and their golden crowns (cf. Exodus 39:30), the peculiar possession of the priest of God, tell of their high and holy functions in the presence of God. The priest's office was to intercede with God for man and with man for God, to he - as was he, the great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ - in sympathy alike with man and God, seeking to unite man to God, even as God was willing to unite himself with man. But seeing them there, associated with God, does it not tell that the holiest and most blessed of the saints know and approve of all he does? This is why the saint's are so blessed, because they do so know God. They understand what he does, and why; and hence those dark facts of human life which so bewilder and distress us cause no distress to them; for they, whilst in deep love and sympathy with us who are left sorrowing here below, have come to know, as here they could not, and as we cannot, the loving and holy wisdom and the omnipotent grace which are working in and through all these things. If, then, those who know are of one mind with God in regard to them, surely we may learn therefrom to "trust and not be afraid."

5. The torches of fire. These are said to be "the seven Spirits of God" - the holy and perfect Spirit of God in the varied diversity of his operations (1 Corinthians 12:4). The witness of the Spirit as well as of the Church to the ways of God is shown. He too, as well as they, testify that God is holy in all his ways and righteous in all his works.

6. The sea of glass. If it were merely the sea that was seen here, we should regard it, as many do, as the symbol of the depth and extent of the judgments of God (cf. Psalm 77:19). But it is a sea of glass, like crystal, and its clear calmness, its firm strength, its perfect stillness - for we are told (Revelation 15:2) that the redeemed "stand upon" it - all this reminds us of the results of God's holy rule. "Thou rulest the raging of the sea, the noise of their waves, and the tumults of the people" (Psalm 89:9; Psalm 65:7). Here, then, is another witness for God and his ways - the progress of peace on earth, concord amongst men; the orderly, quiet, and undisturbed life; the security and peace which are amongst the marked results of the progress of the kingdom of God in the world. Let the results of missionary enterprise amid savage peoples now civilized and at peace attest this.

7. The four living ones. The meaning of this part of the vision is not clear or certain. All manner of opinions have been held. We regard them as answering to the cherubim of the Old Testament, and they are apparently the representatives of those who stand nearest to God, and by whom he mainly carries on his work. Hence the chief ministers of the Church of God - prophets, priests, evangelists, and apostles. The ancient Church very generally regarded these "four living ones" as the representatives of the four evangelists, and in many a picture, poem, and sculpture this idea is portrayed. But we prefer to regard them as part of the symbol, and not the whole. And the different creatures which are selected for these four are the chiefs of their several kinds: the lion amongst beasts, the ox amongst cattle, the eagle amongst birds, and man amongst all. And these several creatures tell of the main qualifications for the ministry of God: courage and strength, as of the lion; patient perseverance in toil, as of the ox; soaring aspiration, "to mount up on wings as eagles," heavenly mindedness; and intelligence and sympathy, as of the man. Ministers so qualified God chiefly uses in his great work. Their wings tell of incessant activity; their being "full of eyes," of their continual vigilance and eager outlook on all sides, their careful watch and ward in the Divine service. Such are his ministers. It is said they represent the whole sentient creation of God. But we find them told of here as leaders of worship, as singing the song of the redeemed (Revelation 5:9), with harps and golden censers "full of odours, which are the prayers of saints." They say, "Thou hast made us kings and priests," etc. Surely all this belongs more to human, redeemed ministries than to vague abstractions, such as "representatives of creation." And if so, then such being the ministers of God is a further reason for the trust, the confidence, and the assured hope of the Church of God in all ages. And titan all are heard as well as seen, and that which we have is the Trisagion, the Ter-Sanctus, the "Holy, holy, holy," which Isaiah heard when in the temple. He also saw the vision of the Lord of hosts. And the uplifting of this holy song serves as the signal for the yet fuller outburst of praise which the twenty-four elders, rising from their seats and reverently placing their crowns of gold at the Lord Jehovah's feet, and prostrating themselves before his throne, render unto him that sitteth upon the throne, saying, "Worthy art thou," etc. (ver. 11). The vision is all of a piece. It strikes terror into the hearts of God's adversaries, as - to compare great things with small - do the pomp and paraphernalia of an earthly tribunal strike terror into the heart of the criminal who is brought up to be tried, and probably condemned, at its bar; but fills with holy confidence the hearts of all God's faithful people by the assurance of the holiness, the wisdom, the love, and might of him that ruleth over all, and in whose hands they and all things are.

III. ITS GENERAL INTENT AND PURPOSE. Beyond the immediate needs of the Church of St. John's day, surely it is designed to teach us all:

1. The reality of the heavenly world. The seen and the temporal do not a little dim and often shut out altogether the sight of the unseen and eternal. It is difficult to realize. Hence whatever tends to bring to bear upon us "the powers of the world to come" cannot but be good. And this is one purpose of this vision.

2. Another is to awaken inquiry as to our own relation to the judgment of God. How shall we stand there, abashed and ashamed, or bold through the atoning sacrifice of Christ which we have believed and relied upon? How shall it be?

3. To excite desire and aspiration after participation in its blessedness. Hence the door is set open in heaven, that we may long to enter there, and resolve through Christ that we will. "What must it be to be there?" - that is the aspiration which such a vision as this is intended to awaken, as God grant it may. - S.C.

Parallel Verses
KJV: After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.

WEB: After these things I looked and saw a door opened in heaven, and the first voice that I heard, like a trumpet speaking with me, was one saying, "Come up here, and I will show you the things which must happen after this."

The Heavenly Vision of the Soul
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