God at the Center
A sermon on Revelation 4 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 4/17/2005
How many of you have seen the film “The Return of the King”? Do you remember when the creature Gollum attacks Frodo, and, wrestling him, tries to grab the ring? What was really going on there? Was the actor playing Frodo really wrestling with someone playing Gollum?
If you’ve watched the features on the extended DVD of any of the Lord of the Rings movies, you know that Gollum is computer-animated. The actor playing Frodo, Elijah Wood, was wrestling a person – but the technical wizards replaced the image of that person with the computer-generated image of Gollum.
The filmmaker gives the appearance of something that is not really happening.
Now, when you saw “The Return of the King” for the first time, did you know that? Did you know that Gollum was computer-generated? For most of you, the answer is yes. By the time the third movie was released, most fans of the series had heard about the way the movie was made.
So when you saw Frodo wrestling Gollum, were you thinking, “Yes, that’s Elijah Wood wrestling with someone else who doesn’t even look like Gollum. Gollum is just a computer-generated image”?
No. That’s not what you were thinking. You were enjoying the movie. You suspended disbelief for a while.
Yet if anyone had asked you, “Is this a film about something that really happened?” you would have wondered what was wrong with him.
The images in the film were managed by people behind the scenes to accomplish a purpose. In the film itself, those people are unseen – but they are in control of all that appears.
Is the same true for the world around us? Are things not what they seem to be?
Are such men the real movers and shakers in history?
God’s Word tells us that these powerful men are no more effective than Gollum in Lord of the Rings. As in the movie, there is something happening behind the scenes. Instead of suspending disbelief, we need to suspend our belief in the world as it seems to be, and depend on God’s Word to tell us the true nature of reality.
In our present sermon series on Revelation, we’ve already seen that what seems most important and real often is not. Indeed, my sermon on Revelation 1 is entitled, “What is Reality?” There, the emphasis is on the person of Jesus Christ. Since then, we’ve seen other examples of the misleading nature of appearances. For example, the church in Smyrna looks to be poor, but is really rich in Christ (2:8). As we saw last week, the opposite is true for the church in Laodicea: that church looks to be rich, it looks to be prospering, but actually is repugnant to Jesus. In both cases, reality is not what it seems to be.
Chapter 4 takes this a step further, showing us the ultimate nature of reality; indeed, this chapter shows us the control center from which all else originates. And what we see at the center is:
He is in control. He is sovereign. He is the only one worthy of all praise.
Let’s look at this text and catch a glimpse of the true nature of reality: God at the Center.
We’ll ask a series of questions for our outline:
WHEN do these events happen?
WHERE do they happen?
WHO is present in the scene?
WHY are they praising God?
We’ll close with some implications for us today.
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." Revelation 4:1
Twice in this verse, John uses the words “After this.” Do these words help us to know anything about when the events described take place?
The first “after this” simply reports that the vision in chapter four follows the vision of the narration of the letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3. As we’ve seen before (first sermon), the sequence of John’s visions is not necessarily the same as the sequence of the fulfillment of the visions.
The second “after this” at first seems more promising: Is John to be shown things that will take place after the letters? Is he to be shown pictures of things still future to us?
Some interpreters take the phrase this way, arguing that the entire rest of the book is future from John’s point of view.
But there are some problems with that interpretation. For one, Revelation 12:5 is a clear reference to the birth of Jesus Christ, which took place about 100 years before John receives these visions. But even in chapters 4 to 6 we have a problem with the sequence of events. This chapters are one continuous vision for John – but they can’t happen in this order!
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!
This seems to place this vision at the end of time, after Jesus Christ returns. For here all humanity is praising God.
But skip ahead to Revelation 6:15-17:
15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slaveand free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?"
These people are NOT praising God. They are part of “every creature . . . on earth” but they are not doing what 5:13 says they are doing. So what’s going on?
John gives us a hint in 4:9
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. (emphasis added)
When does this happen? At a specific point in time? No. This happens whenever the living creatures give glory to God. This is not a one-time event. John knows that what he sees here is a glimpse of a continuing process.
So when does this take place? Answer: This is NOT a specific event at a specific point in time. This is ultimate nature of reality. This is truth now, this is truth to which all events flow.
In Daniel 7 we see something very similar. We’ve noted before (sermon) the strong links between Revelation and this vision of Daniel. Here, Daniel has a vision of kingdoms, one succeeding another. Then breaking into this vision of present and future kingdoms, he sees the Ancient of Days over all:
9 As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. 10 A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. Daniel 7:9-10
This, too, is not one time event. Daniel also sees a vision of the true nature of reality. It looks initially as if God is simply giving him a vision of future political realities. But then these verses and other show that God is not only forecasting the future, He is in control of every event; indeed, He is at the center of all events. This is true at all times. At all times God is in control, God is in His throne room, God is superintending events.
So when? Always.
The answer to “where” seems easy: The throne room of God!
Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6 contain similar visions of God’s throne room. Consider Isaiah 6:1:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.
But even in the New Testament we have a similar idea. Consider Ephesians 2:6:
[God] raised us up with [Christ] and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
Note that these acts are once for all: He raised us, He seated us with Christ in the heavenlies! Paul is speaking to people who have not yet died, but he says they are seated with Christ in the heavenlies. What does this mean?
The “heavenlies” are the spiritual realm. This is spiritual reality: All believers are with Christ in the heavenlies. Just as all creation truly praises God, all believers are with Him – even though they still walk on earth. There is a sense in which we are already raised with Christ, even while living here.
So don’t think of God’s throne room as some place in the universe, high above us. This is the spiritual realm.
God is clearly the main character in this scene, so we’ll end with Him, and look at the lesser characters first:
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. (Revelation 4:4)
These elders are dressed in ways we have seen before. They are wearing white garments, which elsewhere have represented the righteousness of Christ, imputed to believers. They also wear crowns, which in the letters to the churches are reserved for those who overcome, those who conquer temptation. These two pictures seem to indicate that the elders are a small set of redeemed people.
But chapter 5 seems to indicate otherwise: Look at Revelation 5:8. Speaking of the elders, that verse says that each is:
holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
The elders are bringing the prayers of the saints, of believers, before God. If they are believers, this is the only place in Scripture where a non-divine human mediates the prayers of another before God.
But there are several places in Scripture where an angel is said to represent and assist a group of people – most importantly, in chapters 2 and 3 of this book. Remember, the seven letters are addressed to the angels of the churches in those cities. So possibly these elders are angels that are representing redeemed humanity.
Why are there 24 of them? There are many numbers that appear often in Scripture – for example, 3, 7, and 12 – but 24 is not one of them.
Revelation 21 verses 12 and 14 seem to be the key to understanding this number. John is describing the New Jerusalem, which itself seems to be a picture of redeemed humanity living in God’s presence:
[The city] had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed- . . . 14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. Revelation 21:12,14
The twelve gates are named for the twelve tribes, and the twelve foundations are named for the twelve apostles. Together that makes 24. These 24 in a sense represent all redeemed humanity of every time and place. For redeemed humanity is to be united is one body. It doesn’t look that way: we are divided across centuries, across countries, across denominations. But in reality, here in throne room, the representatives of all redeemed humanity unite in fulfilling purpose their primary purpose: the praise of God.
So these elders represent all saved people from every time and place, praising God.
The Four Living Creatures:
Verses 6 to 8 tell us about these strange creatures. John describes them as living creatures, living creations of God. They are covered with eyes; each has six wings; yet despite these characteristics, somehow they look like other animals: a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle.
What do they do? Verse 8 tells us:
Day and night they never cease to say, “Holy! Holy! Holy!”
In this chapter, this praise of God seems to be their only job. In chapter 6 we’ll see these creatures play a role in bringing God’s judgment on the world.
There are some strong similarities between these living creatures and those described in other accounts of God’s throne room in Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6, but no two accounts are identical.
What do these living creatures represent? If the elders stand for all redeemed humanity, what about these creatures?
Think about the four animals they resemble:
Do you remember Psalm 150:6?
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!
John has just enumerated all categories of creatures that have breath. All animate creation is represented by these four living creatures. For all creation exists to praise God. And while we can’t see that at present, in the throne room of God, representatives of all living creature are doing just that. This is reality: everything that has breath praising God, the creator.
We turn to God. Let’s look at Him in all three persons:
God the Holy Spirit
Is God the Holy Spirit present? Look at verse 5:
before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God
We’ve seen this imagery before in Revelation 1:4 and 3:1. Look at the first of these:
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, (Revelation 1:4-5a)
We noted that John is asking for grace and peace to his readers from all three persons of the Trinity: The Father is the one “who is and who was and who is to come”, the Son clearly is Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit comes in between: “the seven spirits who are before his throne.” The number seven stands for perfection or completeness. So the Holy Spirit is the perfect or complete Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is right there, before the throne.
What about God the Son? Does He appear in chapter 4? Yes. Once clearly, and once hidden.
Question: Who speaks in verse 1? Whose is the “first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet”? Look back to 1:10 and the verses following. That voice belongs to Jesus. So Jesus is the one who brings John to the throne room. That’s His clear appearance.
But also, look ahead to 5:6. I’m going to read from the NIV, which in this verse captures the meaning of the words better than the ESV:
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne (emphasis added)
In chapter 5, the Lamb is “in the center” or “in the midst” of the throne of God the Father. But He doesn’t just appear there suddenly. He has been there throughout the scene, throughout chapter 4. Indeed, He told us this at the end of His letter to Laodicea:
“I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” Revelation 3:21
In the brightness surrounding the throne, John doesn’t see Him in chapter 4 – but Jesus is there, on the Father’s throne, seated with His Father.
Note first where God the Father is: In verse 4 we read that the 24 thrones for the elders surround the one central throne of God. In verse 6 we read that the four living creatures are around the throne. Looking ahead, in 5:11 we read that thousands and thousands of angels are further out, encircling the throne.
Do you see the picture? God is at the center, surrounded by concentric circles of those praising Him: Living creatures, then elders, then angels. This picture displays the majesty and importance of God. Everything is around Him. God is the center.
Yet: in contrast to the somewhat detailed description of the living creatures, John does not describe God hardly at all. Indeed, He doesn’t even say His Name, instead referring to Him three times as “the one seated on the throne.” We only learn that He is like bright, shining, precious stones - “the appearance of jasper and carnelian” – and that flashes of lightning and booms of thunder come from the throne (verse 5).
Why? Why doesn’t John describe God in more detail?
Because He is holy. He is set apart. He is indescribable. He is stupendously glorious. That truth is communicated more effectively by not describing His appearance than by describing it with inadequate words.
Instead, John lets the living creatures speak for Him. And they describe not His appearance but His character:
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” Revelation 5:8
His triple-holiness is so great that nothing else compares to Him. He is pure. He is perfect.
Furthermore, He is Almighty: All power originates with Him, and His power is over and above all. Nothing can withstand His will or His purpose.
Finally, He “was and is and is to come”. He is eternal. He has always been holy and almighty, he remains so now, and He will always display that power and majesty.
This is God the Father: At the center of praise, at the center of power, at the center of holiness.
Look at verses 9 and 10:
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
God is physically at the center, and by their actions and statements these representatives of animate creation and redeemed humanity keep Him at the center. The four living Creatures always give Him glory, honor, and thanks. The elders worship Him.
But then they do this strange action, casting their crowns before His throne. Why?
As we have seen, the elders represent redeemed humanity. Their crowns represent their overcoming, their conquering of the temptations around them. By giving these crowns back to God, they are acknowledging that He is the source of whatever power, might, endurance, wisdom, and discernment they have shown. They are saying, “Everything good in us comes from You! Whatever honor that comes to me, whatever rewards come to me, all is ultimately due to Your work in me!”
So they cast their crowns before God picturing this truth, then they proclaim it verbally:
"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 elders are saying, “Glory, honor, power belongs to YOU, not to us!” Why? The word “for” indicates they are now going to explain this statement. They give two reasons:
1) “For you created all things.” The elders say, “You are source. You thought up all this. You brought it into existence.” Apart from Your might, Your power, Your ingenuity, Your creativity, nothing would be here at all. So it’s only logical that all your creation praise You!”
2) “By your will they were created.” The elders praise God for freely choosing to create all things. He was not forced to do so. God did not need creation. God was not lacking in anything that the creation provided Him. Even though He knew sin would come into this world – even though His eyes are “too pure to look on evil” (Habakkuk 1:13), God nevertheless chose to create the world. So praise Him!
Consider first implications for Christian worship.
Our Worship here should be a reflection of the worship that takes place in the throne room of God. Thus, our worship here must keep God at the center. The main purpose of worship is to magnify His glory, as we acknowledge clearly in word and action that He is the source of all good, that He is worthy of all praise. We must never even hint that the preacher or the singers or the musicians are the ones to be praised; we must never even hint that they are the ones to be applauded.
Our purpose on Sunday morning is to join those elders, our representatives, in praising the Holy God, to cut away the façade of the world around us, and to see the true nature of reality; to suspend our belief in the world as we see it and to invite all in attendance to view the true nature of reality.
As John Piper says:
If God is not supreme in our preaching [and, I would add, in our entire worship service], where in this world will the people hear about the supremacy of God? If we do not spread a banquet of God's beauty on Sunday morning, will not our people seek in vain to satisfy their inconsolable longing with the cotton candy pleasures of pastimes and religious hype? If the fountain of living water does not flow from the mountain of God's sovereign grace on Sunday morning, will not the people hew for themselves cisterns on Monday, broken cisterns that can hold no water?
This is our goal every Sunday. So our first core value is being God-centered.
We value putting God at the center of all that we do. We put His glory and His honor first, asking in every decision, “Will this bring the greatest glory and praise to our God?”
This considerations are not limited to Sunday mornings, but extend to every minute of our existence. All of our life is to be worship, as we value Christ more than all the world has to offer. If we are to live this way, we must fight continually to keep these truths before us. We must remind ourselves again and again:
Revelation is 1 John 4:4 in picture form:
He who is in you is greater than he who is in world.
Hold on to this picture of all creation bowing in praise before God:
So marvel at this great God! Join the elders, the living creatures in giving glory, honor, and thanks to God.
God is not a weak old man desperately seeking attention from anyone who might bless him with it.
God is mighty, powerful, and holy.
God is at the center.
Worship Him there!
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 4/17/05. The John Piper quote comes from The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Baker, 1990), p. 108-109. The God-centered core value is taken from the vision, values, and mission statement of Desiring God Community Church, available at www.desiringGODchurch.org/visionstatement.pdf .
Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.
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