The Worship of Heaven

Sermon by David Strain on Oct 20, 2013

Revelation 4:1-5:14

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Now would you please take your copies of God’s Word and turn with me to the book of Revelation, chapters 4 and 5?  Revelation chapters 4 and 5 which is on page 1030.  And when you have your Bibles open before you, let’s turn to God together as we pray.  Let us all pray.

Our Father, we need now the help of the Holy Spirit to come upon this assembly of Your people anew as Your Word is opened that our hearts and minds might be opened to Your words.  We would behold some refracted beam of heaven’s glory that shines from the throne room through these verses into our hearts.  Would You show us Your greatness that we may adore You and worship You with reverence and awe and show us Christ in His love for sinners, in His victory and triumph, in His tenderness and mercy, that we may lean and rest on Him and live for His praise and glory.  For this we pray in His name, amen.

Revelation chapters 4 and 5.  This is the holy, inspired, inerrant Word of Almighty God.  Hear Him:

“After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven!  And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’  At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.  And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.  Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.  From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.

And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind:  the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight.  And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, 

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever.  They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 

‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’

Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals.  And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’  And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.  And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.  And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.  And they sang a new song, saying, 

‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’  And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’  And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped.”

Amen.  We praise God that He has spoken in His holy and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Fear Not: Beholding the Living God

In his important book, Knowing God, Jim Packer says, “The study of God, who He is, what He’s like, is the most practical project anyone can engage in.”  The most practical project anyone can engage in.  “Knowing about God is crucially important for the living of our lives,” he says, “as it would be cruel to an Amazonian tribesman to fly him to London, to put him down without explanation in Trafalgar Square, and leave him as one who knew nothing of England or English to fend for himself, so,” Packer says, “we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing the God whose world it is and who runs it.  The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business for those who do not know about God.  Disregard the study of God and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life, blindfold as it were, with no sense of direction and no understand of what’s around you.  This way,” Packer says, “you can waste your life and lose your soul.”  We badly need to know God, to know Him better.  The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place and life in it a disappointing, unpleasant business for those who do not know Him.  

Revelation chapters 4 and 5 were written at a time when the church was suffering terribly for its faith in Jesus and more suffering was on the way.  And it is designed to help hurting Christians look beyond the strange, mad, painful place, the realities of this world, to see God’s greatness and glory and majesty and grace, and seeing that, be enabled to press on.  Notice how John begins with his vision in the first verse of chapter 4.  “After this I looked and behold, a door standing open in heaven.”  That word, “behold,” by the way, is the most frequent command in the book of Revelation.  “Behold.”  I wonder if you know what the second most common command is.  “Fear not.”  Behold!  Fear not!  How will we obey the command to “fear not” in this strange, mad, painful place that we live in?  How will we face our present sufferings, future trials?  How shall we “fear not,” John?  We’ll do it by obeying the command to “behold,” to look.  

You silence fear by looking where John points us.  God opens the door of heaven and tells John and tells us to look, to behold.  And what is it that John sees?  Verse 2 - “and behold a throne and one seated on it.”  That is, if you’d like, the message of the book of Revelation in a nutshell - “Fear not!  Behold a throne and one seated on it!”  The Lord has not abdicated His rule.  He has not defected from His sovereignty.  Though we may not always be able to grasp how it is so, John is inviting us to lift our eyes from our circumstances and to see again the throne and the one seated upon it.  The message is, as Jeremiah 17:12 puts it, that “a glorious throne, set on high from the beginning, is the place of our sanctuary.”  The glorious throne is our sanctuary.  Let us run to it, rest in and cling to the vision of the greatness of God that John sets before our eyes - God in His sovereignty and in His mercy.  That’s the agenda of these two chapters.  I want you to notice six things.  I promise they’ll be a brief six things.  First of all in chapter 4 - the beauty of God, the reign of God, and the servants of God.  Then in chapter 5 - the victory of Christ, the wounds of Christ, and the Spirit of Christ.  

I. The Beauty of God

So first of all John tells us about the beauty of God.  Look at verse 3 of chapter 4.  “And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian.”  Now I don’t know about you, but I can’t help feeling rather disappointed by that description.  Is that the best you can do?  You have a vision of God on the throne and this is it?  All you’ve got for us is that He’s like jasper and carnelian?  Whatever carnelian is, right?  But that’s kind of the point.  Words fail him.  He actually can’t tell us much more.  He doesn’t have the vocabulary to tell us what he sees.  We’re not able to deduce a whole lot from John’s description of the appearance of the one on the throne.  All John can say is He’s like, He’s like, He’s like gemstones.  He’s like a diamond turning in the sun.  He is dazzling in his beauty.  Captivating, breathtaking, in the splendor of His majesty.  The best he has, you see, are analogies, creaturely comparisons that inevitably fail to do justice to the reality.  God is not someone we can ever say we understand, that we have the words to nail down.  Instead, we’re going to do with Him what John says we do with diamonds, with precious stones - we adore Him.  We can’t take our eyes from Him.  We will be captivated by Him.  We’ll spend eternity - think about this - the greatest delight of your heart will be to spend forever having your eyes filled with new vistas of the truth of the glory of our God.  

You know, like mountain ranges. You climb to the top of the first mountain and through the purple mist and haze you see another mountain that you had not seen before, stretching out before you.  And when you get to the top of that one there’s still more and more beyond that.  Heaven will be an endless expedition of discovery and wonder in the beauty of God.  The facets of the gemstone of the brilliant radiance of God’s character will turn before us and we will endlessly be amazed by Him.  The beauty of God.

II. The Reign of God

And secondly, John tells us about the reign of God.  In verse 3, we read that “around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.”  Remember, the rainbow is the emblem of God’s covenant promise - Genesis 9:13-16 - to preserve the world and never again destroy it by a flood.  It is actually the only covenant sign in all the covenants of Scripture that is expressly said to be assigned not primarily for God’s people but for God Himself.  He will see the rainbow.  He will see the rainbow and remember His promise.  He will preserve the world that it might be, as Calvin put it, “the theater of His glory, the venue for His saving work.”  So here is that same symbol now that John sees in his vision of the throne room and we discover that it is always shining in the presence of God.  God never forgets His covenant promise of mercy.  He is constantly at work as the King of creation, ruling the elements from His throne, upholding and preserving, and governing all His creatures and all His action.  

That, I think, is also part of the point of verse 6.  “Before the throne there was, as it were, a sea of glass like crystal.”  In Revelation, the sea is a threatening thing.  From it, in chapter 13, the first beast arises to threaten the people and purposes of God.  In popular pagan mythology, the sea was the sphere of chaos raging and churning in opposition against God.  But look at the sea here.  It is mirror calm before the throne of divine sovereignty and dominion.  Chaos may seem to rage around us, but God, the Lord of creation, rules over it all.  The rainbow overhead and the sea, millpond calm at the foot of the throne, are powerful reminders that our God reigns.  And don’t we need to hear that?  Do you ever get tired of being reminded that God is sovereign?  That chaos may be how things appear but that appearances can be deceiving?  The Lord sits on His throne, governing all things, working all things according to the counsel of His will. 

III. The Servants of God

The beauty of God, the reign of God, and then thirdly, notice the servants of God.  First, John mentions the elders in verse 4.  “Around the throne were twenty-four thrones and seated on the thrones were elders clothed in white garments with golden crowns on their heads.”  These are the representatives of the people of God across the ages - the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles of the new covenant era - here are the representatives of the church from across history.  And what are they doing?  They are participating in the reign of God.  What a thing heaven will be - the church participating in the reign of God, there, seated on the throne.  They have crowns on their heads.  And with the elders are these four strange living creatures who almost defy imagination.  John piles up symbol upon symbol to teach us about them.  They are positioned, one on each side of the throne, facing every direction, poised to do the will of the one who sits there.  They’re covered inside and out with eyes.  That is, they’re full of wisdom.  One is like a lion, another an ox, the third a man, the fourth an eagle.  What are they?  What are they for?  Hard to say.  A clue perhaps is in their name, “living creatures,” which echoes the Hebrew of Genesis chapter 1 where God creates “nephesh chayah” - living creatures.  Are they perhaps here to represent all the creatures that God has made and over whom He continues to rule.  

More important than their description is their activity, these servants of God.  Look at what the elders and the living creatures are about.  Like the seraphim in Isaiah chapter 6, day and night the living creatures never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”  They adore God for His holiness.  The thunder and lightning that pour from the throne in verse 5 provide the symbols of which the song is the explanation.  Like Mount Sinai, shaken by thunder and lightning in Exodus 19, to emphasize the unapproachable holiness of God, so here God is adored as the holy, holy, holy One.  They adore God for His holiness; they adore God for His power.  “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty” - infinite in His power.  And they adore Him for His immutability, His unchangability - “He was and is and is to come.”  “As thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.  Great is thy faithfulness!”  That is their song.

And as they sing praise, notice the elders antiphonal response in 9 to 11.  They cast their crowns before the throne.  Even their rule is but an aspect of the reign and rule of the sovereign God.  And they sing, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things and by your will they existed and were created.”  So the living creatures are celebrating God’s being, His holiness and power and immutability.  The reason the elders celebrate, however, is for His work, particularly His creative work.  “By his will all things exist and are created.”  The reason God is worthy of honor and glory and praise is that He made all things.  The beauty of God, the reign of God, and the servants of God caught up in adoration and in praise.

A Shift of Focus: from the Majesty of God to the Loveliness of Christ

And then in chapter 5 our attention turns from creation to redemption, from the Father to the Son, from the majesty of God to the loveliness of Christ.  As the chapter opens, however, there is a problem.  Do you see it there at the beginning of these opening verses?  John sees an angel with a scroll in his hand proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”  But John says, “No one was able to open the scroll,” and so he begins to weep loudly.  The scroll, if you continue reading through the book of Revelation, you will see the scroll is the program of history worked out according to the design and decree of the one who is seated on the throne.  And since no one is able to open the scroll, John is distraught.  Will the plan of God fail?  Will all that has happened in the - all that has inspired the praises of the heavenly court in chapter 4 count for nothing?  Will the church on earth, suffering for the cause of Christ, will it be defeated, destroyed, left to the hatred of a rebel world?  So John weeps.  Few things can inspire despair more quickly than the thought that the future holds no hope, that there is no light at the end of the tunnel.  Maybe you can relate to poor John here, but an elder comes to him and does what a good elder will always do - he comforts him, verse 6, and he does it, notice, by pointing him to Jesus.  He comforts him by pointing him to Jesus.  

IV. The Victory of Christ

Here is first the victory of Christ.  Look at what the elder says.  “Weep no more.  Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered so that he may open the scroll and its seven seals.”  Here’s another command to behold, to look.  It’s actually not a command to look somewhere other than at the throne.  John looks where the elder points and in verse 6 he sees Jesus, we are told, between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders.  Maybe a better translation there would be, “in the midst of the throne and among the elders and living creatures.”  Right in the center of the throne is the Lion of the tribe of Judah where God alone has the right to sit and preside and rule.  Right at the epicenter of the heavenly court with the vast company of heaven’s angels all around Him, there is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David.  It is, of course, classic Messiah language.  A mighty, conquering king has come and His victory puts Him on the throne and entitles Him to open the scroll.  Jesus is the one, verse 7, who takes the scroll from the Father and opens it.  Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  He is Lord to the glory of God the Father.  Jesus sits at the Father’s right hand until His enemies are made a footstool for His feet.  In John’s own day and in ours, when the Gospel is held in contempt, Christians face mockery and disdain for their confidence in Biblical truth, we need to cling to this clear picture of the reigning Lamb, the victorious conquering Lamb - the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David has conquered.

Until the Lamb Himself comes and wipes away every tear from our eyes in glory hereafter, nothing will dry our tears while we wait than a fresh view of the victory of Jesus, to be reminded that whatever our experience may teach, the Word of God teaches that Jesus Christ reigns and rules and has conquered.  The Lamb wins, John said.  I once heard a candidate for ordination asked to summarize the book of Revelation in a single sentence and he said, “The Lamb wins.”  That’s the message of the book of Revelation.  The Lamb wins.  Jesus wins. What good news in the face of all of our trials.  The victory of Christ.

V. The Wounds of Christ

But notice what it is that John sees as he turns to look for this mighty, conquering King, this Lion of the tribe of Judah.  Verse 6 - “I saw a Lamb, standing as though it had been slain.”  The wounds of Christ.  How does Jesus come to triumph?  He triumphs by the cross. How does Jesus fulfill the Father’s plan?  By dying for sinners from every tribe and language and people and nation.  And that’s what comforts us best of all, isn’t it, that the Lion is the Lamb, that the King went to the cross, that the Lord of life still bears the marks of His death for us - the emblems of His love for you. The marks of His devotion to your salvation and eternal security and welfare are indelibly, etched forever in the now glorified flesh of the Lord Jesus our Redeemer.  We were singing about it a few moments ago.  “Crown Him the Lord of love, behold His hands and side.  Those wounds yet visible above in beauty glorified.”  What do those wounds say to us?  Don’t they say, “Since God did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all how will He not also along with Him freely give us all things?”  When you come to Jesus it is to a Lamb standing as though slain that you come, one who’s bought and paid for all that you need, with whom you need never strike a bargain.  Who’s already purchased every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places for you, one who’s entered suffering on your behalf and sorrow and death on your behalf.  One who is able to sympathize with you in your weaknesses, one who has purchased your pardon and who pleads your cause.  The wounds of Christ.  

VI. The Spirit of Christ

The victory of Christ, the wounds of Christ, and then finally the Spirit of Christ.  Verse 6 - “I saw a Lamb,” John says, “with seven horns and seven eyes with are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.”  In chapter 4 and verse 5, the sevenfold spirits - seven is the number of completion and perfection - the sevenfold spirits, the Holy Spirit, burned like a flaming torch before God’s throne.  Here now is the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, endowed with that same Spirit and He sends Him out into all the world to execute His sovereign rule and mission of saving the lost.  Horns, of course, are the ancient symbol of power.  Eyes the symbol of wisdom.  Jesus who conquers by the cross, now rules by the Spirit of perfect power and infinite wisdom.  One day He will execute His rule as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, terrible in holy justice.  And all who will not trust Him now will face His wrath then one day.  But today, today He rules as the Lamb, tender and merciful, one who has been slain for sinners.  And He sends His Spirit into all the earth to bring men and women and boys and girls to embrace Him and trust Him and cling to Him. 

So we’ve looked with John at the beauty of God and the reign of God and the servants of God, we’ve looked with John at the victory of Christ and the wounds of Christ and the Spirit of Christ.  What ought all of that to do to us as we take in the glorious scene that John spreads before our gaze?  How should it affect us, these great truths?  

A Picture: When Man Encounters Glory

The story is told of Quintin Hogg Baron Hailsham - there’s a mouthful of a name - Quintin Hogg Baron Hailsham. He was the British Lord Chancellor in the 1970’s.  One day he’s walking through the wide, gothic corridors of the houses of commons, bedecked - it must have been a formal occasion - he’s bedecked in the full regalia of a Peer of the Realm and the Queen’s Lord Chancellor. And of course in those days you could still take a tour of the Parliament building, the days before 9-11.  And so coming towards him down the same corridor were a group of tourists whose nationality I shan’t mention for fear of giving offense.  They were drinking in the history and the tradition and the beauty and the architecture.  And so as you might imagine, they are agog at the spectacle of the Lord Chancellor in his robe marching towards them.  Unbeknown to them, at the far end of the corridor behind the group of tourists was a member of Parliament that Baron Hailsham had not seen for some time.  And so raising his hand to summon his attention he shouted his name.  “Neil!” he said.  And every one of those tourists immediately fell to their knees in the corridor before him.

Gripped by this Glory: Our Response

The point is, there is something instinctive in us when we’ve come face to face with glory that responds.  Our knees buckle in the presence of greatness.  We can’t help it.  When we see glory, you feel it in the pit of your stomach and it comes out in your language, in your behavior, in your priorities, in your physical responses.  Watch what happens as Jesus comes at last to take the scroll.  In Revelation chapter 5 it is as though a shock wave of praise suddenly erupts and begins to radiate outward from the epicenter around the throne.  First the elders, in verses 9 and 10, begin to sing.  “Worthy are you to take the scroll and open its seals for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.  You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God and they shall reign on the earth!”  And as the shock wave proceeds ever outward from the throne, verses 11 and 12 now, an innumerable company of the angels of heaven take up the song.  “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” until finally the tidal wave of adoration sweeps up within it every creature in heaven and on earth and in the sea and all that is in them as they adore the Lord in wonder and praise.  Verse 13 - “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!  Amen!”  

What will be the effect in anyone who comes to grips with or who has been gripped by the glories we’ve been thinking about so poorly together this evening?  Won’t it be, won’t it be to join the songs of the saints and the angels and the living creatures?  Won’t it be the surrender of your whole being for His praise and glory?  And won’t it be the awakening in your heart for more, to gaze with a longer view, uninterrupted, into the loveliness of Christ and the majesty of the One who is seated on the throne?  The shock waves, you know, of the Lamb’s victory, as we’ve read about it together this evening in these chapters have now reached us.  And we too are now being invited to take up the song and cry not just with our lips but with our hearts and our lives from this day until we come to stand before Him, “Worthy is the Lamb!  Worthy is the Lamb!  And may I and all that I am and have be to His praise and His glory!” 

Will you pray with me?
Our Father, we bless You that Jesus is our glorious and merciful Redeemer.  That were the veil to be lifted and we were enabled to see what John saw that day we would see Christ still bearing the marks of His love for us.  So help us to join the song.  Help us to bend the knee.  Help us to respond with more than words but with our lives freshly surrendered to His glory and grace.  For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

Would you stand and receive God’s benediction?

And now may grace, mercy, and peace from Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you all now and forevermore.  Amen.

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