Isaiah 6:1-3 | Revelation 4:2-8

Just to note – those of you who follow along with the lectionary may have noticed that this week’s reading doesn’t match up – in order to make a five week series of readings cover the six weeks between Easter and Pentecost we’ve added this passage, and for the next few weeks we’ll be sort of running one week behind.

Last week, after we introduced the book of Revelation, the question I got asked by a number of people was along the lines of “why did John write in this weird, surreal, apocalyptic form?”

And I think there are two main answers to that question which are worth exploring.

The first is safety. John was writing at a time when the Church was under the continual threat of persecution from an ever increasingly unstable and paranoid Roman empire. Anything that smelt of disloyalty was rapidly met with violent suppression.

Now stories of God and spiritual being and what they got up to, those were fine. The Roman and Greek pantheons were full of supernatural beings, and Rome was very tolerant of the mythologies of all the nations they conquered. You could believe what you wanted about the spiritual realm, and worship however you wanted, as long as it didn’t interfere with your earthly loyalty to Rome and to the Emperor.

Unfortunately John’s message, if you had to boil it down into a couple a sentences was, roughly speaking “Jesus is King, the empire of Rome is going to be overthrown, worship and serve King Jesus and you’ll be on the winning side.”

So there’s a sense in which John is just covering himself, giving plausible deniability to the accusation that he is fomenting rebellion against Rome.

But I think more importantly, as alluded to last week, John is writing big. The scale of Revelation is epic – the whole of history, the world, the spiritual realms, and the final consummation of the whole of creation. It’s too big to just say. It involves spiritual realities that are beyond what human language exists to describe. And, we now know with hindsight, it also the story of a scope of history far beyond anything John could have described. If John had limited himself to words about his current context the book would have nothing to say to us about climate change, refugees, religious terrorism, global inequality and the like.

Instead, what we have is a set of impressionistic images capturing eternal themes for the whole of creation, time, space and realm.

So John describes for us a vision of the throne room of God. And in the throne room, gathered around the throne of God are the elders, the spirits of God, and the four living creatures.

Twenty four elders, seated on twenty four thrones. Now in writing like the Revelation numbers tend to have symbolic meanings. And twenty four is an interesting choice. The imagery of elders seated around the throne of God is not uncommon in Hebrew literature, but the number of elders is almost always twelve, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. 

But John gives us twenty four – twice twelve, for those whose times-tables are a little bit rusty – as if to say “this is bigger than the Kingdom of Israel”. Twelve would say “here are gathered all the tribes of Israel – twenty four declares “not just them, but the other nations of the world as well”. All the nations are represented here in their elders – the leaders of all the peoples of the world gathered in the throne room of God.

The nations, the political systems, the tribes, the peoples, Jew and Gentile, are here, included in the divine plan.

And in front of the throne, the seven spirits of God, visualised as seven burning torches.

Seven, of course, carries with it ideas of perfection, of completion, of holiness. The seven spirits of God may well be a way of speaking of the Holy Spirit, or perhaps simply a description of the whole of the spiritual realm that stands in service of God – or even that those ideas aren’t ones that we, in our physically based language and imagination are able to distinguish or grasp. The image, though, speaks clearly – here, in the throne room of God, along with the leaders of the nations of earth, is the fullness, the holiness, the completeness of the spiritual realm.

And then, to complete the picture, there are the four living creatures.

“Living creatures” here is a difficult translation – the word in Greek, zoon, (like ‘zoo’, ‘zoology’) is used 23 times in the Bible, but 20 of them are in Revelation. So it’s a hard word to define clearly. But, as we might guess from our word ‘zoo’, it means ‘things which are alive’. Living creatures. With faces like a Human, an Eagle, a Lion, and an Ox.

But they’re not quite ordinary creatures either – they’re flying (not strange for the eagle, but unusual for the rest) – with six wings (which would probably disconcert even the eagle). This picture of creatures flying with six wings seems to be taken straight out of Isaiah’s vision of the throne room of God, where “Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings… And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts’”

But look at what John has done. In Isaiah’s vision, perfect spiritual beings are flying, singing “Holy, holy, holy” before the throne of God. But in John’s vision that role is taken up by living creatures. By flesh and blood. Not angels, not even humanity alone, but by representatives of all the creatures that God created. 

As far as I know, never before was the throne room of God portrayed with the physical creation included. It’s always lights and rainbows and fire and angelic beings – but here, living creatures in the presence of God.

This is weirdly one of the most amazing images in the whole of the book, this breaking down of the barriers between the physical and spiritual world, this elevation of life into the presence of God. The Bible is full of images of the spiritual world breaking into the physical; here for the first time we see it working the other way around.

In the throne room of God, John paints us an image of the  kingdoms of the earth, the powers of the spiritual realm, and the living creatures of creation – united in the worship of God.

According to Hebrew cosmology there’s really only one thing missing: the ‘beneath’ – the realm of dead, of the fallen, the place of chaos, of spiritual forces of evil. 

There is no place for them around God’s throne, but they certainly feature in the book of Revelation – we’re going to see them later on.

But we are left today with this image, this source of hope, of all humanity united with the spiritual realm and the created order, together joined in the refrain that echoes through the book

‘Holy, holy, holy,

the Lord God the Almighty,

   who was and is and is to come.’