We often think that the visions of heaven show us what heaven is like, as the place we will go to someday. But this isn’t what “heaven” meant in the Hebrew view. In the Old Testament, heaven meant the headquarters of God’s authority. It was the place of rule over the earth. They didn’t think of heaven as the place where we go and live after death. This latter idea is more a Greek concept of heaven, where earth was denied its place in God’s eternal reconciliation.
The Hebrew view is always of heaven and earth together, one day to be both fully united in wholeness. The Greek saw a separation of heaven and earth, with earth ultimately rejected by God and destroyed. Sometimes we read the Revelation this way: as though God is destroying the earth and taking us all to heaven. This is not the message of Revelation. The Hebrew saw heaven and earth as one. This is shown, for example, in the Lord’s prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Jesus came for this to be fulfilled.
So, how are we to see these visions of heaven in Revelation?
Ezekiel is a good place to start. Ezekiel 1 records, “The heavens opened, and I saw visions of God.” This is like what happened to John. For Ezekiel, the visions were about the coming judgement of God on Jerusalem from Babylon. For John, the visions were about the coming judgement of God on Jerusalem through Rome.
Ezekiel’s visions were like John’s in many ways. He saw God in his glory, storm clouds, brass, fire and other symbols of judgement. He saw “the wheels within wheels,” coming from the north. These were visions of, or from, heaven, but none of this was a description of what heaven is like as a place to go to. These visions described what heaven was decreeing, or doing, upon the earth. The wheels coming from the north, showed the Babylonian army coming from the north to destroy Jerusalem. These visions were more about the earth than they were about heaven.
As we read the text of Revelation 4, we will see the same. The whole text is about the earth. To the Jewish hearer, or early Christian believer, in John’s day, this would have been very clear to them. John’s visions of heaven were about what God was bringing to pass on the earth, not just in terms of judgement, but also his plans for the renewing of his whole creation.
JUDGEMENT OF RENEWAL
John saw a vision of God’s throne, and like for Ezekiel, this throne represented the coming judgement. This doesn’t mean that God exists literally on a throne like this, and if we went to heaven this is how we would see him. John said, “It doesn’t yet appear what we shall be like, but when we see him, we shall be like him.” (1 John 3:2) There are many things about eternity that are beyond our present understanding, but the throne here depicts the rule of God. It’s like Old Testament anthropomorphisms, that is, God describing himself in human terms, so we can understand him.
What immediately strikes us about this coming judgement, is the presence of the rainbow around God’s throne. That is, even in his judgement, God will not forget his covenant with his creation, to sustain and restore it. The rainbow was put in place after the Flood and it depicts God’s commitment to renew his whole creation after the judgement in Noah’s time. The clear meaning of this symbol in Rev 4, is that the judgement coming on Jerusalem was restorative.
Its purpose was a better condition for the world, not the destruction of the world. The first century church would have seen this plainly.
Next, Revelation speaks of the 24 elders on thrones, representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the church. Here, the theme of the rainbow continues: God continued his promises of creation renewal, by calling Israel, in the Old Testament, and by launching his church, in the New Testament. The purpose of the church is not an escape to heaven but is linked to the rainbow promise of a new creation.
The 24 thrones again are not literal but represent the rule of the church in restoring the families of the earth. The whole sense of rule is transformed in the kingdom of God. The throne is a symbol of something that is very different to our usual understanding of a throne. Jesus transformed all our human institutions, and Revelation needs to be read in this way. Jesus described rule in his kingdom and serving the least of humanity, not sitting above people. (Luke 22:26) His throne is his cross, on which he ruled principalities and powers in his mercy, his forgiveness and his selfgiving endurance.
It is true that in the resurrection we rule with Christ, but the vision of Rev 4 also depicted the rule of the church on earth in this current age: the 12 apostles representing the whole church. This was a huge encouragement to the church of John’s day, in their sufferings. The world saw the church as weak, insignificant to the powers, something to be despised. But in the vision, heaven’s view is different. Seeing the church on thrones showed that the church was actually ruling in the world. Like the cross of Christ, the church’s sufferings were their overcoming rule: overcoming the greed of the world and transforming it by forgiving mercy. This is what would rule, or change, the world.
From now on, in Rev 4, every symbol used represents God’s plan for a renewed creation. The seven spirits of God come next.
“Seven” is the number of creation. The seven days of Genesis 1 depict God’s love and care to create a flourishing world, which was “very good.” Seven depicts God’s fullness of wisdom, knowledge and understanding, upon which creation stands and fulfils God’s benevolent purposes.
The “seven spirits of God” was a reference to Isaiah 11, which speaks of the Messiah coming to renew the whole creation. There, Isaiah speaks of the spirit of wisdom, of knowledge, of
understanding, of counsel, etc. These are all attributes of the one God, his one Spirit. This wisdom is seen in the cross. It is love of neighbour, contrasted with self-interest love. It is upon this wisdom, which the church was showing in its persecutions in John’s day, that renewal would come to our lives and communities. The consequence, as Isaiah shows, would be a renewed world: “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9) This is the vision that John was invoking in Rev 4.
Next, even the mention of the Spirit of God, to the people of John’s day, invoked a very clear meaning. It took them straight to Genesis 1, where the first mention of the Spirit is to do with forming this creation. This is Hebrew theology. When the Spirit was mentioned in the Exodus, it was because God had called Israel to re-form the world. We may see the Spirit today more in terms of our personal matters, but to the church in the first century, the coming of the Spirit meant one thing: God had returned to restore his creation.
Rev 4 continues by mentioning the four animals of creation: the lion, bull, human and eagle. These represent wild animals, domesticated animals, humanity and the birds. Together they are a reference to the created order in which people dwell. Then John invoked the vision of Isaiah 6, of the temple of the Lord. In Hebrew theology, again, the temple means one thing: God’s presence in the world and his commitment to renew his world through his temple.
In the Old Testament, the temple was the place where heaven came into and filled the earth. The temple was the conduit, the connection between heaven and earth. In the New Testament, the temple is the church, through which God is filling his creation. (Ephesians 1:23)
The cry of the angels in Isaiah was invoked by John. In biblical writings, when an Old Testament passage was referred to, then the theme of that passage was being enlisted. In Isaiah 6, the angels cried out, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord almighty. The whole earth is filled with his glory.” The early church, hearing John’s vision, would see it as a vision of renewal, albeit at first through the judgements that would be coming and then through a new creation arising.
In Rev 4:10 we see the vision of the elders casting their crowns before the Lord. This isn’t something we do when we get to heaven. This was a picture of the church in earth in John’s day. It was their humility in service, in washing each other’s feet. We cast our crowns before the Lord, by our love and service towards each other. We don’t wait to get to heaven to cast our crowns as a love act towards God. The Revelation shows the humility of the church, contrasted to the arrogance, ego and self-importance of the beast, and shows that this is how the church’s rule of renewal transforms all things.
And just in case there is any doubt about the meaning of this chapter, or of the Revelation as a whole, it is clearly stated in the last verse: “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for you have created all things, and for your pleasure they are and were created.” This a vision about God’s creation, the pleasure it gives him, and his coming in Christ to renew the world.
It is a not a Greek vision about the church escaping to heaven, but a vision grounded in the Hebrew view of the world.
It’s striking that before Revelation goes into outlining the terrible judgements to come, it first firmly roots these judgements in God’s commitment of love towards his creation. Nothing that God does doesn’t come from this love and this commitment to renew his people and world. This is not a vision of heaven, but a heavenly vision of a renewed earth.