Backstage of the Universe



This is our fourth week in our tour of Revelation
and we are in chapter four.

Last week we heard Jesus saying
that—beholdhe stands at the door and knocks (3.20).

Jesus isn’t addressing non-Christians,
Jesus isn’t addressing the world in general,
Jesus is addressing the church.

Jesus wanted to the church in Laodicea
to open the door to him so they could
be together and dine together.

And not just Laodicea.
Not just back then.

Revelation is ancient mail
written to “the seven churches.”

To the full and complete church
everywhere and every when.

In every place in every century,
Jesus wants the people who claim his name
to do exactly this.

To hear the voice of God,
to hear the voice of Jesus,
and—as best we know how—
open ourselves together to his presence.

We said last week that
wetogetherthe Church—
are at the heart of how Jesus saves.

The letter of Revelation is Jesus addressing us—the Church—
encouraging us to hear himus to remain faithful to him—
and asking us to open ourselves—to crack the door a little more
to his lifethe life of God.

In the last three weeks,
we’ve gotten a bird’s eye view of the first three chapters.

With chapter four, however,
something new begins:

(ch 4) After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first 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 there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.

In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:

“‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’
who was, and is, and is to come.”

Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:

“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
    to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
    and by your will they were created
    and have their being.”

John sees a door open into heaven (v1),
and the triumphant trumpet voice he heard in chapter one (1.11)
invites to rise, to ascend, to come through the door.

And when he starts describing what he sees through that door—
well, if you were uncertain that we’re in Revelation before,
you don’t need any convincing now.

A scene in heaven confronts us.

Now, when we hear the word “heaven,”
we immediately have particular images
that jump into our mind.

[slide #1]
When we most of us hear the world “heaven”
this pops into our head for some reason.

I know that heaven doesn’t look like the Far Side,
I know that Gary Larson is just brilliant at irony and satire,
but doesn’t anyone else have something like this appear
a default image for heaven?

Images of white puffy clouds
against a bright blue sky with a gentle breeze blowing
and maybe a few quaint harpists quietly strumming.

And the bored guy wishing he had brought a magazine.

The image pops into my head
when the word “heaven” gets dropped
and I have to consciously, willfully push it out of my head.

I think we just need to acknowledge—to name—
that fluffy, quaint, boring picture of heaven
so that we can move past it.

So that we can see John’s vision here.

[slide #2]

When John says that he sees
a door open into heaven, into “ouranos,”
John is seeing what is realest real.

Like he’s got a backstage pass to the universe.
Like he’s going behind-the-scenes of all reality.

That’s what’s is confronting us here.

Not some boring, fluffy country club in the sky.

No—the deepest, most foundational layer of existence.

The dimension of reality
where you see the Source of the universe,
where you see the Mystery at the heart of all things,
where you see the most important, most true, most beautiful.

The dimension of reality
fully devoted to God.

And he’s doesn’t seem to be giving us
a picture of heaven in the future.

People talk about this passage sometimes
like this is a picture of the future
of what heaven will be like one day.

But we’ll see in the coming weeks, it’s like
this reality of what’s happening in heaven
exists side-by-side with
the reality of what’s happening on earth.

To be sure,
the trumpet voice says that John
is going to see “what must take place after this” (v1).

John is going to see what must take place
in the future—in the fullness of time.

But in the words of one scholar,
before John can see the future
John has got to see the one who holds the future.

Next week in chapter 5,
we’ll see John beginning to weep
because no seems able to make sense of the world and its future (cf. 5.3-4).

No one can open “the scroll.”

And then he’s told not to weep,
because there is Someone who can.

But for now—this week—here in chapter 4—
what’s important to see is that John—on the prison island of Patmos—
is having God and God’s dimension of reality
revealed to him.

A backstage pass to the universe.

The technical word for what John has experienced is “theophany.”

God’s Spirit (v2) has given John a “theophany”—
a manifestation, a vision, a picture of God himself.

God has revealed Godself to John.

An experience that is ultimately beyond description.

Have you ever had an experience
that was so powerful or so overwhelming or so wonderful
that you found yourself at a loss for words?

You start trying to tell someone about that experience—

about your child being born,
about swimming with dolphins,
about the intensity of a car accident
and you’re at a loss for words.

You find yourself searchingstrainingstretching
for the words that could possibly describe something
that is ultimately beyond description?

That’s where John is.

John is searching—straining, stretching
for words that will begin to hint at
the beauty
and truth and power that he saw.

And so John utilizes 
the most powerful language and images he knows
to communicate what he experienced.

He uses the language and images of Scripture.

John is a first-century Jewish Christian
committed to the God of Israel
and the Jewish Messiah.

John’s imagination was absolutely soaked in—
bathed in, marinated in—
the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament).

And so the way he describes his experience
of seeing the mystery at the heart of all things
is through the language and images of the Old Testament.

Almost all of the images in John’s vision of heaven
are images adopted from other parts of Scripture.

[slide #3]
One scholar called Revelation 4 and 5
“a symphony of OT theophanies.”

All the different visions and stories and moments
throughout the Old Testament where God has revealed himself,
are put into concert with each other here.

Like a worship cocktail.
Like a Scripture smoothie.

“Man oh man… what I experienced… it was indescribable.

“It was like three parts Daniel,
parts Isaiah, with some Ezekiel mixed in
and a splash of Exodus.

The prophets sure knew
what they were talking about.”

John draws on every bit of sacred Scripture that he can:

“Heaven isn’t anything close to fluffy or quaint or boring—
it’s the most living-active-alive place I’ve ever seen.

“Energy like you’ve never seen—
like a nuclear reactor—like the heart of a star
lightning and noise and peals of thunder (v5).

“This must have been what Mount Sinai was like
when God appeared to Moses and the Israelites (Ex 19.16-18).

“Energy, lightning, fire.

“There was a throne and… Someone sitting on it (v2)…
someone that Someone reminded me
of the beauty of jasper and ruby

“And it was a rainbow
bright and beautiful like an emerald (v3)—
encircled the whole throne.

“I know that Ezekiel described God that way
and it’s hard to understand
but it’s the only way to describe him.

“That beautiful sign given to Noah (Gen 9.16)—
that sign of mercy and love and loyalty—

That covenant is like his cologne,
those promises are like a perfume.

Mercy and love and loyalty
just surround him—like a rainbow.

“All around him were others—
other people—other kings

“I’m pretty sure they were kings…
they were dressed in white and had golden crowns.

“I think that might be a true picture of God’s people…
because there were twenty-four of them (v4).

“It’s like the twelve sons of Jacob
and twelve disciples of Jesus
standing before us
as a picture of all God’s people.

“Yeah—all God’s people—throughout the centuries—
as hard and terrible as life sometimes looks,
even right now we’re actually kings.

“But not proud or pompous or pushy kings…
nothing like Alexander or Domitian or Donald.

“God is making us kings like him.
Humble kings, low kings, serving kings.

“That’s what I saw
those twenty-four elders doing:
following the lead of all living creatures (v9)
and worshipping the One True King.

“Yeah… it’s like weall God’s people
are learning to do what
the rest of creation naturally does.


“Yeah, I think that’s what those four animals in the center (v6-8)—
those four strange creatures with serious biology problems—
are all about.

“I may be getting it wrong,
but what I saw had to be like what Ezekiel saw centuries ago—
wild animals, domesticated animals, flying animals, and humankind,
were all were right there in the middle of everything.1

All creation before the throne
moving with their wings like Isaiah said (Isa 6.2)
and totally alertall eyesseeing everything.

“All living things are just naturally, always
praising the Lord God Almighty (v8).

…and then the people of God
follow creation’s lead with their own song (v9-11).

“I guess the limitless, seven-fold
Spirit of God (v5) is who drew us all there.

“I don’t know… how to describe it… It was just… beautiful.”

I think that’s the vision John saw.

The theophany that John experienced
during the Lord’s Day on Patmos
was unspeakable… yet he’s been told to speak it.

And so it’s like he’s using language to its breaking point.

Someone on the throne
crackling with energysurrounded by mercy
endlessly praised by creation and the people of God—

Someone so alive, so joyful, so serene,
that even the sea is calmed before him.

Like clear, crystal glass (v6).

Even an ultimate picture of chaos and confusion like the sea,
is brought into order—is brought into peace—
before this Someone
and before His throne.

In essence, John’s vision sees
that the universe has a center—a nucleus—
he sees a pulsing heart behind reality
and sustaining and ordering all things—

[slide #4]
he sees there is a throne
around which everything orbits
and it is not him.

And it is not you.  And it is not me.

We do not sit on the throne.
The world does not orbit around us.

We did not create the world.
We do not sustain the world.

We don’t even create or sustain our own lives.
We don’t even keep ourselves breathing.

Almost none of us have thought
about breathing
this morning.

We are not the center of the universe,
we are not the center of the world,
we are not the center of anything.

This might seem like
the most obvious statement in the world,
but we don’t know it.

We don’t really know it.

Think about the things
that you were angry about this week…
maybe what you’re still angry about.

How much of our anger—if we were honest—
actually is anger that people are not orbiting around us?

“That was my parking space
and that jerk just stole it.

“That jerk stole my parking space.”

What a disturbance in the universe.
What an anomaly in space-time.

“They do not know that all of creation orbits
around me and my parking needs.”

And parking is just the beginning
people argue with me all week, people disrespect me all week,
people refuse to bend to my will all week every week.

Don’t they know—don’t they realize—
that they should be orbiting around me,
that they should be bowing to me,
that they should be singing my praises?

How much of our anger,
how much of our pain,
how much of our struggle and sin,
how much of our worry, our anxiety, our insecurity,
how many of our arguments,

how much of it comes
from our constant surprise
that the world does not orbit around us?

How much of it comes
from our trying to sit on a throne
that does not belong to us?

If they would just agree with me,
then the sea would be calm—then there would be peace.

If they would just do what I want,
then I could forgive them, then I could move on,
then I would be able to sing.

A lot of times the church talks about “asking Jesus into our heart”
as if the goal is to make God a part of our life
a part of our world.

As if our life—our world—our heart
is the realest and truest thing.

But that’s almost the opposite
of what happens here in Revelation.

John hears Jesus say
that he’s standing at the door
but when John sees the door open,

it’s less like John inviting God into his life
and more like God pulling John into his life—
into God’s life, into the life of heaven.

I think a lot of times,
we want to invite God into our small world—
we want to use God to help our small lives—

to fix this financial struggle,
to solve this crisis before us,
to confirm that we really are the center of the universe.

And then we get frustrated
when God never seems to do that.

I invited Jesus into my life,
why isn’t he fixing anything?”

But maybe, just maybe,
Revelation shows us something different.

[slide #5]
Maybe Jesus is inviting you—asking you—into his life.

To take up a cross,
to love others, to forgive others,
to serve others when its painful.

Maybe a voice is calling all of us,
“Come up here, I’ll show what must take place,”

and maybe—just maybe
in your life—in your life right now
God is pulling you into his world.

Into a world where you’re not on the throne,
into a world where you’re not the center of anything,
into a world where you don’t get your way—

nothing orbits around you—
and maybe that world is heaven.

It’s the best place
any of us could possibly be.

But Jesus inviting us into his life
is harder than us inviting Jesus into ours.

It takes a longer time.
It’s more painful.

It requires us to get off the throne.

It means giving up on our delusions
that one day the world—that that person
is going to orbit around us.

It requires us to throw down all power

every one of our crowns
all our pride—all our despair
our entire self-centered life
at the feet of Someone else.

Jesus inviting us into his life is harder
because Jesus invites us to die.

Because he knows that until we die
we’ll never join the song.

The song that all creation—those four living creatures—
and that all of heaven is already endlessly singing.

Our lives will never experience peace like crystal glass,
we’ll never smell the mercy that floats like rainbow,
we’ll never behold the beauty and majesty and wonder of heaven.

Because we’ll be forever waiting
for others
to sing our praise.

And we will be endlessly disappointed.

So may we hear the knocking at the door
and welcome Jesus to draw us into his life,

may we recognize the places,
the areas, the parts of our lives,
where we claim the throne,
where we expect others to orbit us,

and may we—the church—follow creation’s lead,
and learn to sing the endless song of self-giving love.

  1. The living creatures of Revelation 4 resemble the super strange cherubim of Ezekiel 1.4-11 but with the number of wings of the fiery seraphim from Isaiah 6.2. Much ink has been spilled speculating about these creatures, but they seem to be best understood as creatures representing all of creation. Animals wild (lion), domesticated (ox), flying (ox), and human from all the world—north, south, east, and west (hence, four of them).

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