The last book of the Bible is the Book of Revelation. Revelation begins with letters written to seven churches. It’s a little bit like the rest of the New Testament, where letters are written to churches—real people in real places. Their problems are explored, their challenges are faced. That same thing happens in this book. John, who writes this book, is a bishop of Ephesus. He’s been in prison now in Patmos, where he writes to that church and other churches that surround Ephesus; he knows them well. He writes on behalf of Christ to these seven churches.
Revelation begins with an amazing personal encounter that John has with Jesus Christ. He turned and he saw Christ and Christ put his hand on his shoulder and said, “Don't be afraid, I'm the living one, the beginning, the middle, the end, alpha and omega” (Rev. 1:17). And then our Lord gives John this message to write to the seven churches. Now we’re at Revelation 4, the beginning of the rest of the book, which will be a vision that John experiences. This vision will dominate the rest of this book as John shares this amazing encounter. It’s going to take your breath away.
(Read Revelation 4:1–6)
This is amazing imagery, and let me offer a word of advice as we look at the imagery in the Book of Revelation. A great deal of it will not be interpreted to us. For instance, it’s not interpreted to us who are the 24 elders that are seated with crowns. Some have wondered if this is an allusion to the 24 ranks of Levitical priests. Who knows? It’s not mentioned. Words are used that say “like a trumpet, like carnelian, like jasper, like a sea of glass.” The best thing for us to do is to stand back in reverence and in awe before some of this imagery. Don’t try to interpret it.
Now some things are going to be very clear and are explained to us. For instance, in Revelation 5 there’ll be a reference to incense that’s rising that John sees. And there John actually interprets it. He says that the incense he saw is the prayers of the saints down through the ages. But most of the imagery is not interpreted. We’re to stand in wonder in front of it. In fact, my own guideline for biblical interpretation, not only of Revelation but of any book in the New Testament, is that the best rule of thumb in interpreting is lean is better than luxurious. I use that rule of thumb for interpretation. It helps a lot.
Luxurious interpretations have often gotten us in a lot of trouble. In other words, in the Book of Revelation, don’t look for the European Common Market. Some people have seen the European Common Market in the Book of Revelation. Some people have even seen the Procter and Gamble symbol of the half-moon in the Book of Revelation. Don’t do that. Don’t look for Russia meeting China in the Book of Revelation. We have sometimes baffled serious readers with these kinds of reckless interpretive models. After the year 1000 a number of Christians said that because 1000 is mentioned in the Book of Revelation, the world is about to end, and a great number of people sold all their properties and they didn’t invest in a meaningful responsibility to the future because the world was going to end at 1000 according to their reading of Revelation. And it didn’t. How embarrassing! Then at the end of 2000, some people said the same thing again, again on the basis of Revelation. Don’t do that. Stand back in wonder.
But, there are things in Revelation that are very, very clear. We’re going to meet one of them right now. These are the songs. The chorales that will be sung in the Book of Revelation are crystal clear. They become for each reader very teachable moments. In fact, I believe the great teaching in the Book of Revelation resides in the songs that are sung. George Friedric Handel was correct. He chose the songs from Revelation as the main themes in his Messiah, not the imagery as much as the songs. So watch for the songs. We’re going to meet one right now that’s very important.
(Read Revelation 4:6–7)
What are these four living creatures? We don’t know. There is one clue though from a first-century rabbinic saying that we have found that says, “The mightiest among the birds is the eagle, the mightiest among the domestic animals is the ox, the mightiest among the wild beasts is the lion, and the mightiest of all is man.” This ancient saying is referring to the whole of creation, referring to creation of the animal kingdom as the ox, the lion, the eagle, and man. Is that what this is referring to? We don’t know. It’s not interpreted to us. But notice something does happen here that becomes clear. These creatures, whoever they are, the eagle, the lion, the man, and the ox, surround “and the four Living creatures, each of them with six wings full of eyes around and on inside, and day and night without ceasing they sing” (Rev. 4:8).
The great song
Now comes the chorale: “Holy, holy, holy.” You heard it in Isaiah 6. “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty who was, who is, and who will be” (Rev. 4:8). Now that is perfectly clear. There is nothing that needs to be interpreted there. There’s nothing beyond understanding here. It’s mysterious, but it’s clear.
The word “holy” in the Old Testament and the New Testament always has to do with the presence of God, and his holy otherness—the fact that he is before creation. He is the Lord of creation; that’s why he’s holy. And that’s sung three times in Isaiah. It’s now sung three times here: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty. Who was, who is, and who will be.” He is the Lord of Time. The Book of Revelation began with that. God is the one who was, who is, who will be. Alpha and Omega, the Lord of Time. Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the 24 elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne, and they worship the one who lives forever and ever, and they cast their crowns. The word is diadem that is used here, that’s kingly crowns, the crowns of authority. They cast their authority, their crowns, before the throne singing.
The song continues, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power for you created all things and by your will.” That means “decision” and “your will” is a very powerful word in the New Testament and Old Testament. “And by your will,” by your decision, they existed and were created. The word for “creation” there is the Greek word from which we get the English word “existence.” They were created. They exist by your decision; it’s a song to God the Creator. The Creator of everything.
That’s perfectly clear. There’s nothing opaque, nothing hidden here. We know exactly what this song is singing. “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,” you’re the Lord of all time, and by your will all things were made and exist by your decision. You’re worthy, therefore. The word axios is used there for “worthy.” It means you deserve this honor because you are the author of everything. What a song! The song reminds us of John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, [the speech] the Word is with God, all things were made through him, without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1–3). That’s how John begins his gospel. It sounds a lot like Genesis l: “In the beginning God said ... and there was light”; in the beginning God created it and called it good (Gen. 1:3). He told us what he thought of what he created: He called it good. We’re getting the same thing now in this great song that begins the Book of Revelation.
We need to see that this song in Revelation 4 is on a collision course with what is a predominant theme in Greek philosophy in the time of the first century. We need to know this; some 400 years before Christ, Plato wrote The Republic. Plato set the whole stage for what would be one of the main philosophical perspectives toward the world in which we live, in Western thought. Plato said that there’s a fundamental distinction between what he called appearance and reality. For instance this table, this pulpit, this marble is not real. It’s an appearance. The reality is the idea behind the table. Now that’s very appealing, especially to a certain spiritual instinct and it’s had a very big effect on Western thought. That’s Platonism, that this reality is the idea, and the concrete reality we see around us is not necessarily real. It is therefore inferior. All that is concrete is made more unreal, and in Platonism, there is a kind of downgrading of the created world.
This text that we’ve just read runs completely cross-grain to that. That is not what this text is saying. This song is not saying that the great realities are the great spiritual realities; and that the physical reality, your body, your sexual nature, your physical nature, male, female, this building, Antarctica, the world, bugs, and all the other things in the world are inferior. What is superior is the spirit and the idea, and that spiritualism of reality has its roots in Platonism.
This text is totally different. This song portrays what is, in fact, the Judeo-Christian understanding of creation, and of the whole concrete nature of this actual world in which we live, which includes our spiritual nature and our physical nature together. That will mark the understanding that the Bible affirms, both Old and New Testament. That is the biblical understanding of who we are and the world that we live in. The song of Chapter 4 is in a collision course with what the Greeks believed. This means that the whole of existence, physical, spiritual, is by God’s decision. His truth stands underneath everything according to this great song. Notice he’s worthy because his decision undergirds everything in the created order.
This becomes the basis for science. Platonism doesn’t produce good science. It spiritualizes you; that’s why the Greeks never came up with an adequate view of sex. Because they didn’t see it as meaningful. It’s only the spirit and ideas that are meaningful. But the Judeo-Christian understanding of your body takes your body seriously and sees you as a real being which has worth, dignity, and meaning. Therefore, science can do experiments and can count on the reliability of the created order, so that we can send someone to the moon and, using Newton’s calculus, we can figure out how to get the person back from the moon, and if he made the right intersection into our space and into our ozone layer and into our atmospheric layer, if he didn’t come in too fast, he wouldn’t burn up and he could bring a spaceship back into this earth. And because of the reliability of the created order, we were able to do it because the earth was dependable. Physics and science were dependable because God undergirds it and gives meaning to all of the created order, physical and spiritual too.
That is the far-reaching significance of this Judeo-Christian understanding of the created order. Therefore, here and now, where we live in the 24-hour cycle of our lives, we don’t try to escape from this world into a phantom world. But the way this text gets you ready for what the Christians will encounter in the second century is Gnosticism. Gnosticism is basically half-baked Greek philosophy trying to take over Christianity. What they said was that the world was created by an inferior God, and for their gospel now the superior God, and they wanted Jesus to be that superior God, who was not really a man. He was a phantom man. He didn’t really die on the cross; he only appeared to die on the cross because he’s too great for that. He’s pure spirit. And that pure spirit will help you get away from the world and escape the 24-hour cycles of living in the world. That became the Gnostic hope. They favored immortality of the soul. But the Christian hope is the resurrection of the body. It’s the real you who has meaning. This world has meaning. Everything has meaning.
Therefore, we don’t want to escape out of the world; we want to make sense of the world. Jesus Christ is not a phantom. He’s a real man. He really died on the cross. You’re not a phantom either. You’re a real person. That is the marvelous song that begins the Book of Revelation. Even with the first century, the early church is going to face a temptation; Gnosticism is going to deny that Christ was really physical. That is why in 2 John, John writes, “Beware of those who say that Christ didn’t come in the flesh. That’s false. He did come in the flesh” (2 John 1:7).
In 1982, I wrote a book about the Book of Revelation. I was invited by Lloyd Ogilvie to write a commentary in a series of commentaries that were being published then by Thomas Nelson. They’re still in print. Let me read to you what I wrote in 1982. It’s interesting in light of the time we’re living in now 27 years later.
John’s vision is the vision of the goodness of creation because of its good design and origin. It is by God’s decision and the world was created, and though the world is in crisis, as indeed this Book of Revelation will confirm, (after all Nero is the emperor when John writes this book) nevertheless the good decision of God stands immovable. God’s vision honors God for the whole created order with the salute of “well done.” John means that however tragic the world and its particular parts may be, the prior fact is this: Each part of the whole is in no sense an accident of playful gods (which you see in Greek mythology). Or the bad joke of a cynical deity. The creation of the world is the good act of the one Holy God.
As a result of this first chorale, we knew that the Christians’ faith in the God who has a will for creation will produce an ethics that must care deeply about the earth, about harvest, about labor management relationships, about the care of animals, about the meaning of our sexual nature, about ecology, about prisoners, about widows, about unborn children, about neglected children, about all the details of being truly human.
As a result of the first chorale, we know that redemption, when it happens to us by the grace of God and in the next section of the Book of Revelation when we meet the Lamb, when it happens to us in the midst of our lives, by the grace of God, will not remove us out of the 24-hour cycle within which we live our lives but will forgive, enable, and offer compassion to us in the midst of the days, the months, the years that exist, by the will of God. God’s will, his awesome decision, is the beginning point for every other fact about life and living. And that’s how the Book of Revelation begins.
Earl Palmer is a writer and speaker for Earl Palmer Ministries, and author of Mastering the New Testament: 1, 2, 3 John and Revelation (W Publishing Group).