A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 4:1-6a
They’re the ultimate in tickets. They’re the trump card of concert-going coolness. “I have tickets in the 5th row!” “Oh, you do? I have tickets on the couch next to Bono after the show. Blaow.”
I’ve never really had the dream-scenario backstage pass experience. My TWOG co-author Steve has had me come backstage with some of the bands he’s played with in the past couple years, and while the artists were super cool and friendly, it was pretty uneventful. I mostly just ate some of the band’s pizza and tried some all-natural peanut butter that one of the artists was really into. It wasn’t exactly what you envision as the “backstage experience.” The peanut butter was really good, though. And I’m all about peanut butter.
There is a singular text in the Bible that offers something like a backstage pass.
“After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first 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 there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it…” (Rev. 4:1-2)
John has been invited into the throne room of God. He’s going to be shown what is about to take place and how it all fits together and makes sense. This isn’t a vision of “what it will be like when we go to heaven.” This is John being invited to pass for a few moments through the thin veil that separates heaven and earth—between backstage and front stage—and be shown God’s plan for the rescue and recreation of the world. What he sees, he’ll be asked to write down (see 1:19) so that it can be communicated to the believers still living on the earth-side of the veil.
Here’s the problem with that… How do you describe what is indescribable? If something is ineffable, how do you “eff” it? What words can you use? What language is capable of capturing what’s said backstage on the couch next to the Creator of all things and the author of every language?
So, John does the best he can. And the book of Revelation is what comes out.
This is one of the most important principles to keep in mind when we’re reading and interpreting Revelation: Human language has its limits. If you try to take John’s words too literally, you’re asking John to do something with language that cannot be done with language: Perfectly describe something that is beyond description.
Someone once explained it to me this way: Try to imagine that you find yourself in the Amazon rain forest among a primitive tribe that has never had contact with the outside world. Now try to imagine that you’ve been asked to explain to them how electricity works. What would you say? … “Well… It’s like this… powerful spirit… that travels along a… um… vine. And the vine goes inside your hut and into a small, round… ah… sun… that’s in your hut. And this sun can make the inside of your hut light when the actual sun goes away. … Now… How do I explain why you would want it to be light in your hut after the sun goes away? … You see there’s this thing called ‘TeeVee…’”
You’d have to use words and descriptions that they understand to communicate, to explain things that they can’t possibly comprehend yet. You could probably make your point, and they’d understand what you’re getting at, more or less. But if they took what you were saying too literally, when they eventually saw the real thing they’d say, “Oh, well… That’s not at all like what you were describing!”
It’s very important to keep that dynamic in mind when we’re reading Revelation if we really want to hear God’s message to us, and not just end up with the truly bizarre and sadly best-selling Left Behind series.
In the opening scene of this vision that John will be communicating to us, he sees the Lord Jesus, enthroned in a room that obviously defies description. When John says that Jesus had the appearance of “ruby” (v. 3), you’re not supposed to think of Jesus as bright red. You’re supposed to think of him as indescribably beautiful. When he talks about a “rainbow that shone like an emerald,” you’re not supposed to think of a green rainbow. You’re supposed to get the sense of unimaginable majesty.
Jesus is surrounded by twenty-four elders. These almost certainly represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles—representatives of the entire people of God, past, present and future, ruling over the world as God’s vice-regents. God’s perfect (“seven,” the number of perfection in v. 5) Spirit is present. And this is happening in God’s ultimate temple. The “sea of glass” in v. 6 recalls the “sea” that was present in the Old Testament temple.
Keep in mind, nothing has happened yet. None of the plot has unfolded.
But the stage is set.
Whatever happens from here on out happens because the indescribably wise and powerful God at the center of it all has determined that it would. And that’s the message of these first six verses for us:
King Jesus reigns.
He is without rival. His rule never trembles or weakens. Not for a moment. In the midst of the worst events in human history, God’s throne is never shaken. In the mist of the worst of what is to come (and it will be worse than anything this world has yet seen), God will not be worried. He will not be unsure. He has never scrambled to come up with a “Plan B.” He has never had second thoughts. “Our God is in heaven; he does all that he pleases.” (Ps. 115:3)
And if that’s true of all the upheaval and calamity and turmoil the world has seen and will yet see, how much more so is it true for the events of your own life? You have seen trouble. You have seen hardship and sadness. You have experienced loss. Believer, do you know that Jesus reigned through it all? Do you know that he was not surprised? Do you know that he wasn’t afraid of how it would go for you, his beloved?
The tapestry of his creation has become frayed and tattered because of our sin and rebellion. But he is weaving the threads—one by one, including the threads of your life—back together, crafting a masterpiece that will be far more beautiful than even the original.
He will not say, “Very good,” over his recreated world as he did over the original. He will say, “Perfect. Finally. This is perfect.”