Having written down the letters to the seven churches, John is now invited to glimpse a vision of the power and majesty of the heavenly court. He is again in the Spirit (Revelation 4:1-2), and begins to describe the details of the heavenly court in ways quite reminiscent of similar scenes in Isaiah 6:1-5 and Ezekiel 1:26-28.
John begins with the throne of God (Revelation 4:2-3). He tells the reader that One sits upon the throne but provides no detail about His form: to look upon Him, John says, is like jasper, sardius, and a rainbow around the throne like emerald. These are the most precious jewels imaginable; they may also represent God’s purity, justice/wrath, and mercy. John well describes God essentially as an emanation of light (Exodus 28:17, Psalm 104:2, Ezekiel 28:13, 1 Timothy 6:16), along with the rainbow, the reminder of His covenant with all mankind (cf. Genesis 9:12-17).
John then describes the twenty-four thrones around the throne of God, and the twenty-four elders upon those thrones (Revelation 4:4). These twenty-four elders most likely represent two sets of twelve, the twelve patriarchs of the Old Testament and the twelve apostles of the New Testament, and therefore are the embodiment of the people of God throughout time. They are dressed in white garments, indicating their purity, and have golden crowns of victory. They also have harps and bowls of incense, representing the songs and prayers of God’s people (Revelation 5:8). Thus the people of God surround God’s throne in purity and triumph; they are shown constantly casting their crowns before God’s throne, prostrating before Him and declaring His worthiness as the Creator of all things (Revelation 4:10-11).
John then further sets the scene in Revelation 4:5-6a: lightning and thunder, evoking God and Israel at Sinai in Exodus 19:16, the seven torches as the seven spirits of God, representing the Holy Spirit (cf. Revelation 1:4), and something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Such details express the majesty and awesomeness of God as well as the distance between God and man.
John then speaks of four living creatures in Revelation 4:6b-9. Like the seraphim in Isaiah 6:2-3, they surround the throne of God and ceaselessly declare, “holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come,” (Revelation 4:8). Yet much of the description is like the cherubim of Ezekiel 1:10, 18, 10:14-15, 20-22: four creatures with the heads of a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle, likely representing nobility, strength, wisdom, and swiftness, respectively (also as leaders of their representative animal categories; others have seen in the four the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They have eyes everywhere and see all things; they obtain no rest from their ceaseless praise of God.
John then focuses on a scroll in the hand of the One upon the throne, written on both sides and sealed with seven seals (Revelation 5:1). An angel cries out asking who is worthy to open the scroll, and no one is found, leading John to weep and lament (Revelation 5:2-4). One of the elders then comforts John, declaring that there is One who is worthy: the Lion of Judah, the Root of David (Revelation 5:5).
At this time John then sees standing in the midst of the throne and of the elders a Lamb as though it had been slain, with seven horns (representing honor, strength, and power; cf. Deuteronomy 3:17, 1 Kings 22:11, Psalms 18:2, 75:4, 89:17, 112:9, 148:14, Daniel 7:24, Zechariah 1:18-21) and seven eyes (the seven Spirits of God, a representation of all sight, thus omniscience and omnipresence: Zechariah 4:10, Revelation 1:4-6), who takes the scroll from the One upon the throne (Revelation 5:6-7). John then sees a threefold set of praises and honor given to the Lamb: first, a new song of the four living creatures and the elders (Revelation 5:8-10), then an innumerable number of angels with the living creatures and elders, declaring a sevenfold declaration of the Lamb’s glory (a doxology; cf. Revelation 5:11-12), and finally all created things in the universe proclaim blessings, honor, glory, and dominion to the One on the throne and to the Lamb (Revelation 5:13-14).
The Lamb of God, which is the Lion of Judah and the Root of David, is Jesus of Nazareth, who died in order to ransom all men from the power of sin and overcame death in the glorious victory of His resurrection (cf. Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58). We do well to note the emphasis John places on the description of Jesus as the Lamb: only in Revelation 5:5 is He described as a lion, but in Revelation 5:6, 5:12, 6:1, 16, 7:9-10, 14, 12:11, 13:8, 14:2, 4, 15:3, 17:14, 19:7, 9, 21:22-23, and 22:1-3 He is called the Lamb. This is not to deny that Jesus is the Lion of Judah, but to remind us that throughout Revelation, as throughout the whole New Testament, Jesus’ victory is won through His sacrifice. He overcame the power of sin, suffering, and death through suffering and dying. His people will overcome through Him also by dying to sin and suffering whatever they are called upon to suffer (cf. Romans 6:1-23, 1 Peter 1:3-9).
It is hard not to be overcome and awed by the majesty of the scene which John presents of Heaven with the One upon the throne and the Lamb. What John sees is not something that is yet to come; it existed in his present day, and it exists to this day and will exist for eternity. John is writing to Christians in Asia Minor who are suffering persecution and who may feel that God and His power are quite distant: through this scene they could see that the victory had already been won. Their songs and prayers surround the throne of God. As they praised, glorified, and honored the name of the One who sits upon the throne and of the Lamb while on earth, so they would also do so in heaven as it is being done in heaven. No matter how dark or difficult our days may seem while on this earth, we can be sure that God sits upon His throne, the Lamb reigns in Heaven, and if we overcome in Jesus, we also will sing the new song of redemption by the Lamb forevermore!