In my hurry to get into the 7 seals, I skipped over John’s spiritual sneak peek into God’s headquarters. Turn to Revelation 4 and follow along:
This is a glimpse into a reality flesh and blood can’t witness.
A voice beckoned to John, and he was transported “in the spirit.” (4:2) I believe this means he was unchained from the 4 dimensions we are familiar with and granted perception of a plane of existence (“the spirit world,” if you will) invisible to the human eye.
Chapter 4, verses 1-6 describe something possibly too spectacular for human imagination to visualize or human language to describe. Both the throne and the One sitting on it are described in glorious terms for a first century observer. I’m sure words failed John and they would certainly fail us, even with our advanced vocabulary. Obviously, the One on the throne is God.
Pay attention to 4:5. From this throne come flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. You will see John mention these phenomena again in conjunction with climactic judgements. He told you where these originate beforehand, so keep that in mind.
Surrounding the throne are 24 “elders” with their own thrones and crowns. I find this number intriguing because it is 2 X 12–a number which shows up in the Bible frequently. Jesus had 12 disciples. Jacob had 12 sons. Whenever the tribes of Israel are listed, the total is 12 (even though the tribe of Joseph was split in 2–Ephraim and Manasseh). Next to the number 7, you will see 12 almost as often in the Bible. Who these elders are isn’t revealed here, but Luke 22:28-30 suggests half of them may be the 12 original disciples (or “apostles” with the probable exception of Judas Iscariot–replaced by Matthias, perhaps, or even Paul). This may seem paradoxical because John the revelator was one of those apostles and therefore would be seeing himself among them in this vision.
The other half of this honored group isn’t clear yet. I find it hard to believe Jacob’s sons would be so highly favored (with the exception of Joseph); moreover, Luke 22:30 tells us that the apostles will sit on thrones in the Kingdom of Heaven, judging the 12 tribes of Israel, hence replacing Jacob’s sons as tribal heads.
Perhaps these 12 were the likes of Abraham, Joseph, Moses and Joshua. Maybe they are gentiles like Enoch, Melkizidech and Job. Maybe they come from the Old Testament prophets. Or perhaps they are nobody we would recognize from the Bible. Perhaps they are people chosen from the 12,000 from each tribe of Israel sealed by God before the great tribulation (7:4-8). Yes, the sealing of the 144,000 hadn’t occurred at the time of John’s vision(s) on Patmos, and is yet future…but this is a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. God is not chained down by the physical limitations of the space-time continuum human beings exist in; therefore I believe many of John’s visions–particularly those into the dimension(s) occupied by our timeless Creator–are beyond the limitations of time. I’ll expound more on this elsewhere.
Verses 6-8 tell us of 4 living creatures surrounding the Throne. Their physical appearance is bizarre to say the least, and I suspect Biblical description of these “beasts” inspired the myths of gryphons, satyrs, centaurs, etc., in the Greek and Roman empires.
John’s 4 living creatures sound very similar to those mentioned by Ezekiel in the first chapter of the book bearing his name. Some scholars label the former “cherubim” and the latter “seraphim.” Some say they are different names and descriptions of the same creatures. All agree that they are angelic beings. (Lucifer, it turns out, is a cherub (Ezekiel 28:13-14) and was chief over all other angels before his rebellion.) The prophets’ attempt to paint a picture with words of these supernatural beings conjures up grotesque imagery… this is where extreme literalism can hinder you from understanding something God considers important enough to include in scripture.
Let’s look at the eyes (pun intended) first: 4:6 says the creatures are covered with eyes in front and in back. Gross, right? 5:6 says Jesus (the Lamb) has 7 horns and 7 eyes. Again, there is nothing in the gospels to suggest that Jesus literally had any such physical deformities, and in fact, the verse goes on to explain that this is symbolic. So then, if you are a 1st century man who “sees” into the spirit world, and want to convey an image of an incredible inter-dimensional creature who can “see” in all directions and into multiple dimensions simultaneously (much like their Creator), how would you describe it? Perhaps you would describe such a creature as being covered with eyes.
John writes that one was “like a lion,” one “like an ox,” one “had a face like a man” and one “was like a flying eagle.” Ezekiel writes that each cherub has 4 faces (Ezekiel 1:6,10): lion, ox, man and eagle. Extreme literalism paints a picture of 4-headed monsters, but there are clues in the whole counsel of Scripture as to what the prophets are trying to convey here.
Take, first of all, the Gospels: 4 different accounts of the earthly ministry of Jesus.
Matthew’s account is written to the Jews/Israelites. The geneology of the Messiah is traced back to Abraham, through David, to Jesus’ “legal” father Joseph. The Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to focus on details that reveal Jesus as the future King of Israel.
Theologians have long characterized Mark’s gospel as a portrait of Jesus the suffering servant (key verse being Mark 10:45).
Luke emphasizes Jesus as the Son of Man in his gospel, and correspondingly traces His geneology from Mary all the way back to Adam.
John (the same John who wrote Revelation, BTW) emphasizes Jesus as the Son of God, starting his gospel with a declaration that Jesus was pre-existant with God, and is also God Himself.
So here is 1 person (Jesus), who lived 1 life as a human being, documented in 4 biologies which, though they integrate well, presents 4 different aspects of the Messiah: 1) the Lion of Judah, 2) the suffering servant (the ox has long been an icon of servitude), 3) the Son of Man and 4) the son of God (the symbol of an eagle is used perhaps because it soars through the heavens, and God dwells in the heavens).
Bible teacher Chuck Missler has presented an in-depth study on the camping procedures Israel undertook in the wilderness: As the Lord instructed them, the tribes of Israel organized themselves into groupings of 3 tribes. Each grouping was represented by the ensign (or guidon, or “banner”) of a particular tribe, and these 4 ensigns surrounded the camp of the Levites. In the center of the Levite camp was the Tabernacle; and inside the Tabernacle was the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark had a lid (called “the mercy seat” or “atonement cover”) with the representation of Cherubim upon it, bowing with wings pointed toward the center. During Israel’s travels through the wilderness, God hovered between the wings of the Cherubim. (Exodus 25:22, Leviticus 16:2) So surrounding that earthly (made by human hands) model of God’s temple in Heaven were 4 ensigns. Can you guess what symbols were on the banners? Try a lion, an ox, a man and an eagle.
I submit that the prophets did not literally behold 4-headed monsters surrounding God’s throne, but used symbolic imagery to capture the differing aspects of each creature (who obviously reflect the image of their maker). Don’t just take my word for that, though–read what the prophet says in Ezekiel 1:5: “…In appearance, their form was that of a man, BUT each of them had 4 faces and 4 wings…” (emphasis added). So if the appearance of these super-angels was after the form of a man, that means to see them with natural, physical, human eyes they appear human (Hebrews 13:2). That would explain why, when angels allowed themselves to be seen in circumstances recorded in the Bible, they were usually called “men.” (The angels who rescued Lot, for instance. Look at Genesis 19:1-5) But in the next breath, so-to-speak, Exekiel says, “but,” and goes on to attribute some bizarre-sounding characteristics of these celestial beings.
My understanding, therefore, is that the cherubim appear to be human when seen through natural/physical eyes. BUT when observed through the Spirit (or “supernatural vision”)–which is to say spiritually percieving their soul and spirit as well as their physical body–the reflection of the image of their Creator stands out, and is so fantastic that any attempt to render it in 3 dimensions or less, or by description in a human language, seems crude, clumsy and grotesque.
While I’m stepping on the toes of extreme literalists (or is it literal extremists?), I also question whether what John “saw” God doing was sitting on a literal throne. Does God the Father really need a chair to sit in? If it’s a literal throne, why does John say God the Son (the Lamb: Jesus) was STANDING in the CENTER of it? (5:6).
Thrones and crowns are human-made symbols of authority on earth. They would have been natural symbols for John to use in conveying the authority of the Creator of the universe, and the governing authority bestowed on the 24 elders, but I am convinced that God needs no crude human symbols of His authority (nor would any such crude symbol belong near the revealed glory of He Himself), and that John was once again using visual motifs to represent what he was allowed to perceive supernaturally in more than 3 dimensions.
Probably more important than who the elders are and what the cherubim “look” like is what they are all doing: praising and worshiping their Creator in eternity.