Monday, May 18, 2009

Heaven (Revelation 4:1-5:14)

Summer camp is on many people’s minds this time of year, and I am certain each person has a few special memories of their own camp experiences. The first camp I remember has an extra special memory with me: we slept in old Army tents and the smell made a lasting impression that revisits, but only under certain conditions. Each summer camp has the standard activities: swimming, crafts, games, archery, Bible lessons, horseback riding, midnight pillow fights, etc.. There was not a single bug in our Texas camps (each was married and had a large family) we were constantly drenching ourselves with a fresh cloak of "Off, even after taking showers to wash off the sweat and dirt before lining up for dinner. How appetizing!

The Campfire sessions were most memorable. There were those camp songs--songs that seem to stay with camps and are never sung again in life. It never occurred to me then that all the people living on the lake were hearing the gospel from 10 year olds every night from June to September as we sang out our joy in the Lord to the point we could hear echoes from across the lake.

"Heaven is a wonderful place,
Filled with glory and grace;
I wanna see my Savior's face!
Heaven is a wonderful place!
(I wanna go there)"

We heard Bible teaching on the glories of heaven, the streets of gold, no more sickness, crying and spending the rest of eternity with the Lord. And of course through the roar and blaze of the campfire we also heard of the horrors of hell . . .

Heaven seems to be a different kind of place for different people. Some see it as the gathering place for all who die regardless of belief, while others see heaven as the reunion place for families and conference center with the saints. There are people who see heaven as a state of mind or emotion, or even some place here on earth. Some others don't seem to care about heaven at all:

Our brethren, who art on earth,
Hallowed be our name.
Our kingdom come, our will be done
On earth, for there is no heaven.
We must get this day our daily bread;
We neither forgive nor are forgiven.
We fear not temptation,
For we deliver ourselves from evil.
For ours is the kingdom and the power
And there is no glory and no forever.

There are people who would like all the benefits of heaven, but would rather God not be present when they get there. But what is heaven? Is heaven the dwelling place of God, of saints, of the dead? No matter how one views heaven, the mere mention of the word brings a sense of comfort, finality, joy and arrival. Heaven has become symbolic for the epitome of experience.

Much has been written for thousands of years concerning visits to heaven (or hell). Others have only imagined being there. Can we trust what they say? "In contrast to the fanciful, bizarre, and often silly fabrications of those who falsely claim to have visited heaven, the Bible records the accounts of two people who actually were taken there in visions. In 2 Corinthians 12 the Apostle Paul wrote of being transported to the third heaven (the abode of God). But he was forbidden to speak of what he saw there (2 Cor. 12:4). The Apostle John also had the inestimable privilege of visiting heaven. Unlike Paul, John was permitted to give a detailed description of his vision, which he did in chapters four and five of Revelation. In these two chapters, John recorded the second vision he saw, the first being the vision of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ in 1:12-17. The Bible refers to heaven more than five hundred times. Yet John’s description in these chapters is the most complete and informative in all of Scripture. Through John’s vision, believers have the privilege of previewing the place where they will live forever." (MacArthur, John. Revelation. Word: Nashville, 2001.)

What Makes Heaven What It Is?

Revelation 4 is a unique passage of scripture, for the picture it conveys is exactly that: a picture, or painting (if you will) of heaven. We can see through his description one complete and uninterrupted view of heaven in this chapter. What John sees in this chapter is not understood through a filter that includes time--time must be removed as we are going to learn about the eternal. Since there was no way to actually “capture” the “picture,” we must use the limited means of human language to communicate, so only one particular aspect of the picture can be described at a time. Everything we read after Revelation 4 occurs within the context of what is seen in this particular vision; in other words, all that follows in subsequent chapters are the details of the painting, a recapitulation of the whole that would go unnoticed unless one points them out, hence the name, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Once we understand one part of the picture, we can move on to understand another part.

John is given a glimpse into heaven, and the first description he makes is not of a place but of a person. A place is not as glorious as the one who makes the place what it is, so the vision begins with a description of One sitting on a throne who is the centerpiece of heaven. This throne is the symbol of authority, and the one who rules as Sovereign sits on it. This throne will be mentioned a number of other times throughout the book, but all the action of this section of scripture is centered on this Supreme Ruler.
"But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God." (Matthew 5:34)

We are told the figure sitting on the throne is "like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance." Key word here is "like," signifying a comparison. David Gutzig reminds us these are the first and last stones described in the priestly breastplate (Ex 38:8-13). J,F & B suggest these are symbolic of the holiness and wrath of God. "The same union of white or watery brightness and fiery redness appears in Rev 1:14, 10:1; Eze 1:4, 8:2; Dan 7:9-10."

"Jasper" is not a reference to one particular stone, but is a category of stone that distinguishes one stone from another; that is, a "iaspis" (precious stone), not an ordinary "lilthos." The properties of the opal communicate the nature of the stone being described here: a white stone with hints of light reflecting green, red, brown, blue, yellow and white. Isaiah 54:12 describes windows made of precious stones, which need to be clear. This does no harm to the additional quality of jasper, which is described also as being clear as crystal or diamond in 21:11 and 18. The brilliance is astounding, but we get a better understanding of the color of this jasper by the next definition.

The one sitting sitting on the throne is described "like" the color of "a sardius in appearance." This color is in a red spectrum, ranging from deep ruby-red to a fleshly color; in other words, the jasper was sardonic. By the way, the stone called "sardius" was found on earth near a location named "Sardis" (this should ring a bell for the student of the Revelation). Sardis was the location of the fourth church Jesus addressed a letter in 3:1-6, the ancient capital city of Lydia, in western Asia Minor and is now a ruin called Sert-Kalessi.

The Rainbow and the Emerald Appearance

Continuing with the vision in 4:3, John describes a rainbow around the throne on which The One is sitting. When we see a rainbow here on earth, we only see a portion or up to half a rainbow. This throne is surrounded by a rainbow--he sees a whole rainbow, but it is like an emerald in appearance. Anyone in this generation knows the color of the emerald thanks to one particular story of one Dorothy from Kansas and her little dog, too. How can there be a dominating greenish tint that dominates something that should represent all colors of the spectrum? One might recall the color that saturates the dark skies during thunderstorms when storm cells that spawn tornadoes are present. Though the sunlight may be blocked by thunderheads to the point it seems like night, when at the right position to the light source, the clouds give off a deep green hue.

Add the other effect of light and perspective, there also appears a rainbow. This seems to be the imagery John is using to describe this incredible sight that, in effect, we are accustomed to seeing only half. In 4:5 John also reports flashes of lightening and the sound of thunder from around the throne. The throne is a stormy place for One who surrounding Himself in cloud . . .

Elders and Creatures

The One sitting on the emeralded-rainbow surrounded throne is bordered by twenty-four other thrones whereupon sit twenty-four elders clothed in white and wearing gold crowns on their heads (4:4). There are also four living creatures (4:6, 8-9). The living creatures are described in 4:7 and reappear in conjunction with the elders in other passages yet to be mentioned (I’ll leave that part of the study up to you to see what they do—if I do it all for you, where would the fun be?).

The twenty-four elders represent those who co-rule under the authority of Christ; that is, those who are saved, glorified and crowned. Throughout the rest of the book of Revelation we find these elders doing a number of things that can only be described with the language of time, but doing acts of timelessness: falling down (4:10; 5:8; 5:14; 11:16; 19:4), casting their crowns and giving worship to Him Who Sits On The Throne (4:9-11; 11:16; 19:4); "answering" and "saying" (5:5; 7:13, 14; 11:16; 19:4-5); singing a new song (5:9); hearing other songs (14:3). (Now trace back through these passages to see what the four living creatures are doing.)

The Lamb

Now that we have an understanding of what makes Heaven what it is, and we understand what happens there, we can now understand some particulars of the whole. Zooming in for a closer look, we find details not noticed before.

Revelation 5 opens with a close-up of The One sitting on the throne. We notice He has a sealed up book noted with a peculiar writing style. A “book” as we picture in our western mind does not make sense, so we must adjust to assume something else called a “book;” that is, a scroll. The point here is not the book, but the One who is worthy to open the book or look into it. This One is described as “the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the root of David” (5:5). When we zoom in a little closer, John shows us this Lion. He is a seven-horned, seven-eyed Lamb standing with the Four Living Creatures in a space between The Throne and the thrones of the elders. And He is not merely standing, but standing as if slain (5:6).

Slain things don’t stand, do they? No. Nor does one picture a lamb when the thinks of a lion, either. Contradiction? Not in the slightest. The simplest explanation is this: He ain’t what you think. When writing to the seven churches, He describes Himself to be, “the living One: and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore” (1:18). Both lion and lamb are embedded within the history of Israel—it was a lamb that was taken into a household, raised as a family member then killed and whose shed blood prevented the Destroyer from entering the homes of the night of Passover (Exodus 12). “Like a lamb that is led to slaughter” so was He when oppressed and afflicted (Isaiah 53:7) in order to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He is the author of our salvation, who shed His blood in order to redeem us (1 Peter 1:18-19).

The reason why is He able to open the book and its seals is because He has overcome (5:5). In other words, He was “slain and purchased for God with Your blood from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” (5:9-10). With His blood He brought men to God to reign with Him as kings and priests. He did not die to merely bring men into heaven. How small!

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