1 After these things I looked and behold, a door opened in heaven, and the first voice which I heard speaking with me like a trumpet saying: “Come up here, and I will show you what must happen after these things. 2 Immediately I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne placed in heaven, and someone sitting upon the throne. 3 The one sitting upon the throne [was] similar in appearance to a jasper stone, and to a carnelion stone, and a rainbow encircled the throne similar in appearance to an emerald.
Remember, there were no chapter or verse divisions in the original text, so this follows straight after John taking dictation of the seven letters. Whenever these temporal markers come up (“after this…”, “after these things…”) we are forced to consider the chronology of events in Revelation. Verse one starts and ends with “after these things,” though in different contexts. At the beginning, John is simply telling us that this next vision occurred after the previous vision with the seven letters. It may be immediately after, or it there may have been a time gap between the two events (the repetition of “I was in the Spirit” could suggest this vision occurred some time later). Whatever the case, the important point is that these visions happen in a chronological sequence in John’s experience, but that doesn’t mean the visions refer to events that will happen in the same chronological order. In other words, the order in which John has the visions does not necessarily correlate to an order of events in actual time.
In 1:19, John was told to “write what you see and what things are and what things are about to happen after these things.” Perhaps this suggest a structure to the book: the seven letters show “what things are” (i.e., the current predicament of the church), and the following chapters show “what things are about to happen” after the letters. Again, there is no specific time scale given. The situations faced by the churches in the letters, while specific to the latter half of the first century in their details, speak very loudly to us today in terms of the themes: persecution, compromise, idolatry, and the lure of wealth and prestige. So the letters might simply be presenting to us the state of the church in the current age. What we are about to see in chapters 4 to the end is how things will all work out in the end: the spiritual reality behind current events, and how the Lord will bring full redemption to His people. The phrase “what must happen” appears to refer back to Daniel 2:28-29, where God reveals to Nebuchadnezzer what must take place in the Latter Days. Also, Revelation 1:1 says that this is a revelation of things that must happen “soon.” We’ve already discussed how soon “soon” is in 1:1, but suffice to say, I think the point of the parallel is the fact that what was in the distant future for Daniel is the not-too-distant future for us–especially since Christ’s death and resurrection has made redemption for God’s people possible.
Notice that the door in heaven is opened (the Greek verb is a perfect passive: a door having been opened). The door was already open when John saw it. The passive voice here might be a “divine passive”–i.e., another way of saying “a door opened by God.” We talked about the significance of open doors when we looked at the letters to Philadelphia and Laodicea. In Philadelphia, Jesus presented himself as the one who holds the “key of David.” He shows the church an opened door that no-one can shut. For the Laodicean church, he stands and knocks at the door, inviting the church to return to intimate fellowship with him. Beyond these references, we noted that the torn veil at Christ’s resurrection opened the way to the Holy of Holies for all God’s people. So the door is the entrance to eternal life, to communion with the Lord, to the very throne room of God. That’s what has been made available to God’s people through Christ’s death and resurrection.
[Greek Geek Note: “a trumpet speaking” is in the genitive case. Good Greek grammar dictates this ought to be in the accusative case to agree with the relative pronoun (“that” as in “the first voice that I heard”) which is accusative. It’s possible John didn’t intend it to agree with “that” and we should translate the line, “The first voice that I heard [was] as of a trumpet speaking with me…” which is entirely possible. However, it’s also possible that John deliberately changed the case to draw our attention to an Old Testament parallel, namely Exodus 19:16-19.]
We talked for a while about “in the Spirit” and the nature of John’s vision. The fact John emphasizes the fact he was “in the Spirit” when he entered the door reminds us that this is not a physical event. What’s happening to John here is a spiritual experience, which doesn’t mean it isn’t real, but it means what he experiences is beyond the physical realm. Unlike the ancient oracles who would use narcotics to fall into trances and have “visions,” John’s vision is guided by the Spirit and anchored in divine reality. However, we must avoid the temptation to be too literal in our understanding of what John describes. He’s using the limited vocabulary of mortal man to describe things that are beyond his reasoning. He’s seeing things that don’t make rational sense and might appear to us as a jumble of images. The important thing for us to discern is what these things mean. I likened this to a dream, where things don’t always make sense because the brain is processing our day’s experiences and stresses. One of the medical professionals in the group corrected me on this point, saying that the modern understanding of dreams is more complex than that. Perhaps it’s better to think in terms of the Old Testament understanding of dreams–as with Joseph or Pharaoh–where the images are strange (bowing stars and sheaves), but signify important truths. Someone made the point that, unlike our dreams which are a product of ourselves, John’s vision is given to him: it’s coming from without as opposed to within.
Of all the things in the heavenly throne room, the first one that catches John’s attention is the throne itself and the throne’s occupant. We might, perhaps, recall Daniel 7, and the description of the Ancient of Days who takes his seat amidst the thrones. But a more powerful parallel is found in Ezekiel 1:26-28, and the figure seated on the throne which the prophet struggles to describe (notice the constant refrain of “(like) the appearance of…”) but certainly exudes power and glory. The throne, both for Ezekiel and John, is a seat of sovereign rule, underscoring the theme of God’s control over all events. And, as we will see in later chapters, judgment comes from the throne of God.
John also resorts to simile to describe the one sitting on the throne, except John uses precious stones whereas Ezekiel uses metal and fire. His appearance is like jasper (an opaque stone, often red but can also be yellow, green, and grey-blue) and carnelian (a reddish stone). I don’t think there’s any great theological significance to the details of the stones other than the fact that they are colorful and symbolize the glory of God. Their importance, perhaps, lies in their repetition in Revelation 21:10ff, where they are used to describe the heavenly Jerusalem–again, symbolizing God’s glory.
The third gem mentioned is emerald, and this describes the “bow” around the throne. The Greek word (iris) could be translated “halo,” but the connection with Ezekiel 1 makes the translation “bow” much more likely, even though the LXX uses a different word for “bow” (toxos). In Ezekiel, the “bow” is like the bow that appears on “the day of rain”–i.e., a rainbow. I think, therefore, it’s safe to assume John sees a rainbow around the throne. (Asking how a multicolored rainbow could be “like an emerald,” which is green is, perhaps, looking too closely at the symbol and not what the symbol signifies: glory and power.) This rainbow is important, especially for Christians. If we recall the story of Noah, after the Flood God made a covenant with Noah and the earth saying He will never again flood the earth to destroy it (Genesis 9:12-17). The covenant sign God used was the rainbow. The word for “bow” in the Genesis passage is the Hebrew word qesheth, which is the same word used for a bow in Ezekiel 1:28. The “bow” usually described by this word is an archer’s bow–a weapon. So, by putting the bow in the sky, it’s as if God is laying down arms as a sign of His mercy. The fact we see this same bow around the throne in Revelation 4:3 reminds us that the throne of God is a throne of mercy for His people, as well as a throne of judgment for the world. It’s at the throne of God that justice and mercy meet.
We’ll pick up with verse 4 and the twenty-four elders next time.